US top court appears unlikely to revive Obama immigration plan

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SCOTUS divided on Obama's immigration policy?

WASHINGTON, April 18 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's bid to save his plan to spare millions of immigrants in the country illegally from deportation and give them work permits ran into trouble on Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case testing the limits of presidential power.

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The court, with four conservative justices and four liberals, seemed divided along ideological lines during 90 minutes of arguments in the case brought by 26 states led by Texas that sued to block Obama's unilateral 2014 executive action that bypassed Congress.

Protests related to the Supreme Court case:

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US top court appears unlikely to revive Obama immigration plan
Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Immigration activists holding an American flag rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Immigration activists holding an American flag and a large Michigan sign rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Immigrants and community leaders rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to mark the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration in Washington, November 20, 2015. The Obama administration on Friday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to revive President Barack Obama's executive action to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, saying Republican-led states had no legal basis to challenge it. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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Liberal justices voiced support for Obama's action. The conservatives sounded skeptical. A 4-4 decision would be a grim defeat for Obama because it would uphold lower court rulings that threw out his action last year and doom his quest to revamp a U.S. immigration policy he calls broken.

More than a thousand people in favor of Obama's action staged a raucous demonstration outside the white marble courthouse on a sunny spring day, with cheery mariachi music from a red-and-black clad band filling the air. A smaller group of Obama critics staged their own rally.

In order to win, Obama would need the support of one of the court's conservatives, most likely Chief Justice John Roberts or Anthony Kennedy. But they both at times hit the Obama administration's lawyer, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, with tough questions.

Kennedy expressed concern that Obama had exceeded its authority by having the executive branch set immigration policy rather than carry out laws passed by Congress.

"It's as if the president is setting the policy and the Congress is executing it. That's just upside down," Kennedy said.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

Obama's plan was tailored to let roughly 4 million people - those who have lived illegally in the United States at least since 2010, have no criminal record and have children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents - get into a program that shields them from deportation and supplies work permits.

Obama said the program, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), was aimed at preventing families from being torn apart.

The case comes during a heated presidential campaign in which the status of the roughly 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally, most of them from Mexico and other Latin American nations, has been a central theme. Immigration is also a global concern, with Europe now struggling with a flood of immigrants fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

The Republican-governed states that filed suit asserted that the Democratic president overstepped his authority provided in the Constitution while his administration said he merely provided guidance on how to enforce deportation laws.

A 4-4 ruling is possible because there are only eight justices following February's death of conservative Antonin Scalia.

POSSIBLE COMPROMISE

One possible compromise outcome would be that the court could uphold Obama's plan in part while leaving some legal questions unresolved, including whether the government can provide work permits to eligible applicants.

Obama would also win if the justices decide the states had no legitimate grounds to sue. Texas said it had "standing" to sue because it would be hurt by the additional costs it would incur by providing driver's licenses to those given legal status.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted the "basic problem" that the government lacks the resources to deport everyone in the country illegally, meaning it must set priorities.

"There are these people who are here to stay, no matter what," Ginsburg said.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized Texas' argument about the economic harm caused by Obama's action, saying millions of immigrants "are here in the shadows" and will affect the economy "whether we want (them) to or not."

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Verrilli said the federal government has regularly launched programs aimed at giving large groups of immigrants temporary legal status as part of its role establishing enforcement priorities due to limited resources.

Asked by Roberts if the government has the power to allow all immigrants who are in the country illegally to stay, Verrilli said: "Definitely not."

Shortly before the plan was to take effect, a federal judge in Texas blocked it after the states filed suit. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in November.

Obama's executive action arose from frustration within the White House and the immigrant community about a lack of action in politically polarized Washington to address the status of people living in the United States illegally.

He took the action after House of Representatives Republicans killed bipartisan legislation, called the biggest overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in decades and providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, that was passed by the Senate in 2013.

Obama, stifled by Republican lawmakers on many of his major legislative initiatives, has drawn Republican ire with his use of executive action to get around Congress on immigration policy and other matters including gun control and healthcare.

RELATED: Immigration in California:

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US top court appears unlikely to revive Obama immigration plan
MURRIETA, CA - JULY 7: Anti-immigration activists protest outside of the U.S. Border Patrol Murrieta Station on July 7, 2014 in Murrieta, California. Immigration protesters have staged rallies in front of the station for about a week in response to a wave of undocumented immigrant children caught along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas and transported to the Murrieta facility while awaiting deportation proceedings. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
MURRIETA, CA - JULY 7: Anti-immigration activist Sabina Durden (R) and immigration sympathizer Mary Estrada (L) debate during a protest outside of the U.S. Border Patrol Murrieta Station on July 7, 2014 in Murrieta, California. Immigration protesters have staged rallies in front of the station for about a week in response to a wave of undocumented immigrant children caught along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas and transported to the Murrieta facility while awaiting deportation proceedings. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Bikramjit Singh, 9, center, and his sister Parneet Kaur, 11, immigrants from India, joined more than a dozen other young people who took an oath of citizenship,Thursday, July 2, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. The children, aged 6-17, each have at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen and became U.S. citizens after their parents were naturalized. They were presented certificates of citizenship as part of Independence Day celebrations. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Irma Castillo, outreach coordinator with United Farm Workers Foundation, left, gives Erica Montoya, 32, right, paperwork during an immigration workshop in Hanford, California, U.S., on Thursday, March 19, 2015. President Barack Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in November as a response to Congress' unwillingness to update a policy that both parties agree is flawed. Recipients would enter the formal economy with work permits and Social Security numbers, creating a legal workforce for businesses, greater security for themselves and revenue for government coffers. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Juan Barbosa, 23, of Bakersfield, looks at a confirmation of petition acceptance for his application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) employment authorization renewal at the United Farm Workers Foundation offices in Bakersfield, California, U.S., on Thursday, March 19, 2015. President Barack Obama announced his DACA program in November as a response to Congress' unwillingness to update a policy that both parties agree is flawed. Recipients would enter the formal economy with work permits and Social Security numbers, creating a legal workforce for businesses, greater security for themselves and revenue for government coffers. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
EL MONTE, CALIFORNIA , DECEMBER 10, 2014: Letisia Huertado (left) helps Destiny Valle (middle) and Ashley Vargas (right) construct sentences in their first grade class at Parkview School, on December 10, 2014 in El Monte. State education officials are preparing to issue the first report documenting the number of students who have continued to struggle with substandard English for more than 7 years, even though most of them were born in the United States. But some schools have developed effective programs to prevent young children born to immigrant families from becoming so-called long-term English learners. (Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA OCTOBER 3, 2014 -- Josephine Lopez, 84, from Perris Ca, joins immigrant-rights supporters celebrating the passage of AB 60, which will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses starting in January 2015 on Friday October 3, 2014. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
GRANADA HILLS, CA - JANUARY 2, 2015: Immigrants without legal status line up to apply for California driver licenses at DMV offices January 2, 2015 in Granada Hills. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
GRANADA HILLS, CA - JANUARY 2, 2015: Immigrants without legal status line up to apply for California driver licenses at DMV offices January 2, 2015 in Granada Hills. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Children of poor migrant families receive backpacks filled with school supplies before the start of the new school year during a charity event at the Los Angeles Mission's 'skid row' headquarters on August 9, 2014. US conservatives recently commented on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's 'war on poverty' to dispute the effectiveness of existing policies, and urge a welfare state overhaul. Five decades and trillions of dollars after President Johnson waged his war on poverty they said a staggering 49 million Americans are still living below the poverty line AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
MURRIETA, CA - JULY 7: Immigrant rights activist Mary Estrada (R) speaks with anti-immigration activists during a protest outside of the U.S. Border Patrol Murrieta Station on July 7, 2014 in Murrieta, California. Immigration protesters have staged rallies in front of the station for about a week in response to a wave of undocumented immigrant children caught along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas and transported to the Murrieta facility while awaiting deportation proceedings. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA OCTOBER 3, 2014 -- Axel Paredes, 40, an immigrant (undocumented) worker who has been in the US for 10 years celebrates with supporters the passage of AB 60, which will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses starting in January 2015 outside city hall Friday, October 3, 2014.. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Children hold banners and placards while listening to speakers at a rally outside the 9th Circuit federal court in Pasadena, California on July 16, 2015, where Immigrant rights organizations, labor, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients from Arizona and Los Angeles gathered. After a multiple-year legal battle, the state of Arizona's embattled efforts to deny driver's licenses to immigrants who have been granted DACA under a federal program will face what could be yet another blow to Arizona when the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit hears oral arguments this Thursday in a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups challenging the discriminatory policy. AFP PHOTO/ FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA FEB. 17, 2015: Immigration reform supporters listen to speakers talk about expanded federal immigration programs that will allow millions of immigrants to stay in the country and receive work permits for three years at Los Angeles City Hall Monday, Feb. 17, 2015. Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo joined Rep. Judy Chu and others to talk about expanded federal immigration programs that will allow millions of immigrants to stay in the country and receive work permits for three years. One of the programs, which applies to people who arrived in the country as children under the age of 16, will be expanded on Wednesday. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Immigrant Jose Montes attends an event on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, DAPA, part of the immigration relief program, downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. The White House promised an appeal Tuesday after a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration and gave a coalition of 26 states time to pursue a lawsuit aiming to permanently stop the orders. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Public officials and immigration reform advocates rally outside the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors headquarters after announcing the launching of the statewide campaign Ready California Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The effort aims to prepare immigrants about the immigration relief plans offered under alliesPresident Barack Obamaâs executive actions. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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