Column: Supreme Court decision turns immigrant’s heartbreak, desire into fire for next election

Montserrat Garibay speaks at a vigil at the Governor's Mansion Thursday June 23, 2016, in response to the Supreme Court decision about President Obama’s immigration executive order. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Montserrat Garibay speaks at a vigil at the Governor’s Mansion Thursday June 23, 2016, in response to the Supreme Court decision about President Obama’s immigration executive order. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I’ve covered President Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration for nearly two years.

Since the first day he announced his plan to shield up to 5 million people from deportation through the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program and the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program in November 2014, the issue has been a hot topic that always makes tensions and emotions run high.

I’ve gone to news conference after news conference in which one side denounces the other and touts the righteousness of their own opinion. A day after Obama’s announcement of his orders in 2014, I covered a rally in front of the Texas Capitol, where, far from being happy about the orders, immigrants and their allies urged the Obama administration to do more to protect unauthorized immigrants in the country. One young lady, who was a beneficiary of the original DACA program in 2012, told me she was happy for her mother who qualified for the program aimed at parents of American citizens but disappointed that it did nothing for the parents of her colleagues who did not have siblings born in the United States.

Soon after Judge Andrew Hanen of the federal district court in Brownsville placed an injunction on the programs the day before they were set to go live last February, I covered a news conference in which immigrants rights advocates were stubbornly optimistic saying the injunction would not stand and urged their community to have their documents prepared for the moment when the block on the programs was lifted.

When the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case in January, I remember the hope in the voices of immigrants rights advocates. Finally, they believed, they would get a fair shot at a hearing, away from what they considered conservative-leaning courts that had openly criticized the Obama administration in the past and held anti-immigrant views.

Even after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, immigrant rights advocates somehow found a way to stay optimistic about the outcome of the case in the face of what seemed very likely to be a 4-4 split that would block the implementation of the program for the remainder of Obama’s term and likely leave the fate of the programs in the hands of the next president.

We’ve got nothing to lose, they said. We have to remain optimistic.

But that optimism was hard to spot during a vigil in front of the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin Thursday night.

Sure, there were the usual rallying cries of “We must continue to fight,” and the call for the crowd to stick together. But mostly a deep-set anger and heartbreak took the place of that optimism.

As the meaning of the decision set in on the group, the old lines about how the programs would help them out of the shadows and allow them lead a normal life in the country that they loved were replaced by resigned comments about how the Supreme Court had “failed them” and scathing criticisms of Gov. Greg Abbott, who filed the suits challenging the programs as Texas’ attorney general.

“It is a shame and a disgrace that the Supreme Court couldn’t come up with a ruling,” said Montserrat Garibay, vice president of Education Austin, as she fought back tears addressing the crowd of about 100. “This Supreme Court decision has ignited a fire in our hearts to keep organizing.”

She wasn’t the only speaker to break down in tears on the night.

But the vigil wasn’t just a moment to air grievances and mope. It seemed to be a cathartic moment for a community that had placed all its hope on one policy from a man in a white house more than a thousand miles away. A policy that was challenged by another man who resides in the mansion in front of which they stood and was ultimately in the hands of short-handed group of eight people in black robes in a court that they had no connection to whatsoever.

In other words, they had placed all their hope on something that was never within their control. And the saddest part is that it could not have been any other way, precisely because of the immigration status that they are fighting to remedy through the very program they had pinned their hopes on. It was a twisted kind of Catch-22 and the full reality of it seemed to fall on them Thursday night in the suffocating heat of Central Texas.

And yet, they would not give up. In the midst of the heartbreak and anger, they resolved more than ever to double their efforts to get out the vote, to canvas their communities to get their allies to vote for people who supported, not only the deferred action programs at stake in the court decision but an overall comprehensive immigration reform. Standing in front of the Governor’s Mansion, Garibay vowed to do everything she could to vote out Abbott in the next election and to stand against any politician that would obstruct benefits toward the immigrant community.

“We remember in November,” she said.

Of course, we’ve heard these things before. Political scientists have long prognosticated that the wave of growth in the Hispanic population in the state would some day turn Texas blue, if not at least purple. That has not come to pass. And in election years, it’s easy for people to get fired up and promise things way beyond their control.

But, I’ve been following these protests for almost two years. They’re always pretty similar, give or take an update on the case or what the issue of the month is when the news conference takes place. This protest Thursday was the first time the desperation, heartbreak and anger in the air was palpable and visible to the naked eye. Speakers had fire in their voices and broke out in tears in the middle of their speeches. Parents hugged their small children, and adults in the crowd hugged each other. Even the usually uplifting music the activists like to play to lighten the mood sounded unusually melancholy.

Will the Supreme Court decision on this case change anything in the long run? Time will tell. But I’ll tell you this: Thursday’s vigil certainly felt different.

Texas reactions to Supreme Court ruling on immigration case

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announces that Texas is leading a 25-state coalition filing suit against President Obama’s immigration executive action, charging that the president is abdicating his responsibility to faithfully enforce laws enacted by Congress during a news conference in Austin, Tx., on Wednesday, December 03, 2014.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announces that Texas is leading a 25-state coalition filing suit against President Obama’s immigration executive action, charging that the president is abdicating his responsibility to faithfully enforce laws enacted by Congress during a news conference in Austin, Tx., on Wednesday, December 03, 2014.

The U.S. Supreme Court split evenly on a case that had challenged President Barack Obama’s immigration plan that would have shielded up to 5 million immigrants in the country illegally from deportation. The deadlock means the lower court’s ruling, blocking the program’s implementation, stands until the case can be resolved in a district court in Brownsville.

Texas legislators and activists have weighed in on the decision. Here is a collection of reactions that we’ve compiled.

Gov. Greg Abbott

“The action taken by the President was an unauthorized abuse of presidential power that trampled the Constitution, and the Supreme Court rightly denied the President the ability to grant amnesty contrary to immigration laws. As the President himself said, he is not a king who can unilaterally change and write immigration laws. Today’s ruling is also a victory for all law-abiding Americans—including the millions of immigrants who came to America following the rule of law.”

Jose P. Garza, executive director of Workers Defense Project

“The Supreme Court has failed to provide a solution for people living in the shadows. The Court’s decision means that as many as five million immigrants in the U.S. remain in constant fear of being separated from their families at any time, and possibly deported. Workers Defense and our families will continue to fight for comprehensive immigration reform despite this decision.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

“Today’s action by the U.S. Supreme Court effectively blocking President Obama’s illegal amnesty program is a major victory for Texas and the bipartisan 26-state coalition. The Court’s 4-4 vote leaves in place the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that protects the separation of powers. The president has no authority to circumvent Congress and disregard the U.S. Constitution by allowing millions of illegal immigrants to continue to stay in the U.S.”

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D- Austin)

“This deadlocked decision is bitter fruit from the same tree that has resulted in gridlock on gun safety legislation. It represents a serious step back to many of our neighbors who have so much more to offer. To achieve comprehensive immigration reform, we must have a new Congress, a better Congress.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

“Today’s decision keeps in place what we have maintained from the very start: one person, even a president, cannot unilaterally change the law. This is a major setback to President Obama’s attempts to expand executive power, and a victory for those who believe in the separation of powers and the rule of law.”

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of Texas Democratic Party

“For our kids, this is about whether mom or dad will be here tomorrow. This is a human tragedy, and 4 million people’s lives hang in the balance. Congress refuses to act on immigration, the Supreme Court is tied, and Senate Republicans refuse to do their job and give Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a vote or even a hearing.

“Tragically, this decision endangers the lives of so many. It’s time for Republicans to stop trying to score political points by tearing families apart. It’s time for Republicans to join a broad coalition of Democrats, the business community, faith leaders, and families working towards comprehensive immigration solutions.

“We all need to get to work, because America’s families depend on it. We cannot allow Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to set the tone on immigration and score cheap political points on the lives of our families. Today, Texas Democrats renew their commitment to keep fighting for a just and fair comprehensive immigration system.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)

“By going around Congress to grant legal status to millions of people here illegally, the President abused the power of his office and ignored the will of the American people. The President can’t circumvent the legislative process simply because he doesn’t get what he wants, and I’m glad the Rule of Law was affirmed.”

Sheridan Aguirre, communications coordinator for United We Dream and leader at University Leadership Initiative in Austin, TX

“For those with DACA, we can’t fall prey to fear. DACA works! We need to come out of the shadows as undocumented. We need to apply and renew, to prove DACA works and protect future relief measures! Power lies in our community. No matter the political games conservatives have played with our lives, we’re in control and we determine our future.”

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Austin)

“Today’s ruling from the Supreme Court is a victory for the constitution and our sovereignty as a nation. The 4-4 vote affirms the 5th Circuit of Appeals decision that President Obama’s executive amnesty is unconstitutional and cannot go forward. President Obama has continually attempted to go around Congress and bypass the checks and balances our government is based on in order to impose his will. This decision is a major step in reeling in the power of the executive branch. It also gives Congress an opportunity to achieve one of my top priorities as Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security – securing our border first.”

Bill Beardall, executive director of the Equal Justice Center

“We are disappointed that the Court reached a tie vote and thus failed to rule on the expanded immigration program, DAPA. However, the President’s original DACA program is still in full effect. The Equal Justice Center has already helped thousands of undocumented young students and graduates across Texas gain immigration protection under that original DACA program and we will now double down on our free legal help implementing that original program.”

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)

“The Supreme Court’s decision today in their ruling on the United States v. Texas rightfully upheld the Constitution. The president’s executive amnesty for illegal immigrants is unconstitutional. Congress has the sole authority under the Constitution to write immigration laws, not Barack Obama. His unlawful amnesty agenda to prevent the deportation of illegal immigrants and to grant them work authorization is contrary to the law and hurts unemployed Americans.”

Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney American Civil Liberties Union of Texas 

“With today’s 4-4 deadlock, the Supreme Court issues no judgment, leaving tens of thousands of undocumented Americans in a precarious — but temporary — legal limbo to be now determined in the District Court. While the 2012 DACA policy remains unaffected by today’s inaction, immigrants will keep battling for just immigration policies and we will continue to defend their civil rights and civil liberties.”

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a victory for the rule of law. As the Washington Post rightly noted, ‘the action deals Obama perhaps the biggest legal loss of his presidency.’ By trying to unilaterally grant amnesty to nearly five million people, President Obama invited even more illegal immigration, which in turn undermines our security and drives down the wages of Americans across our nation. No President has the authority to rewrite the law or ignore our immigration laws, and the Court’s rejection of Obama’s executive amnesty is a powerful rebuke of this administration’s lawlessness. I salute Texas for leading 26 states in securing this important victory for our Constitution and for our sovereignty.”

Priscilla Martinez, Battleground Texas field director

“The United States is a nation of immigrants — families who have come to this country in search of a better life for themselves and their children. While we are saddened and disappointed by today’s decision by the Supreme Court, we won’t be discouraged. We will keep fighting to elect leaders who represent the true values and diversity of Texas and who will support hardworking families instead of target them.”