BROWNSVILLE, Texas — A federal judge in South Texas on Thursday pushed an attorney representing the federal government to explain the legal authority behind President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, which a coalition of 25 states has sued to try to stop.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen heard arguments during a hearing on a request by the coalition for a preliminary injunction, which would put Obama's action on hold until the lawsuit makes its way through the courts. The first of Obama's orders is set to start accepting applications Feb. 18.
While Hanen at times grilled U.S. Department of Justice attorney Kathleen Hartnett to detail how the federal government can justify legal action which could spare from deportation as many as 5 million people who are in the U.S. illegally, the judge was measured and cordial throughout the more than three-hour hearing as he questioned lawyers from both sides.
Hanen said he would not issue a ruling on the injunction request before Jan. 30.
He gave no indication on how he would rule, stating at the start of the hearing his courtroom would not be a "complaint department" for someone's problems with the executive branch. He said the case is "an area of legitimate debate" and "there aren't any bad guys in this." He said Brownsville and South Texas have seen both the benefits and drawbacks of strict enforcement of immigration laws and "what some people call a lax enforcement policy."
"Talking to anyone in Brownsville about immigration is like talking to Noah about the flood," Hanen said.
Hanen acknowledged that he has criticized U.S. immigration policy in two prior rulings, but also pointed out that he ruled in favor of the federal government in both those cases.
The coalition, led by Texas and made up of mostly conservative states in the South and Midwest, argue that Obama has violated the "Take Care Clause" of the U.S. Constitution, which they say limits the scope of presidential power.
Speaking on behalf of the states, Andrew Oldham, deputy solicitor general of Texas, told Hanen that Obama's executive action will cause states irreparable harm because it would cost them billions of dollars in health care, education and law enforcement costs. Oldham also argued that the executive action would induce more people to come to the U.S. illegally and that those already in the country illegally would have no reason to leave.
Oldham said the issue was "whether the president can unilaterally suspend immigration laws, hand out millions of immigration documents and remove that operation from judicial review by calling it an executive action. If this president can do this, the next president can do the same thing with tax law, environmental law, workplace protection laws, with any laws."
Hanen questioned the economic harm claim related to health care and education, as prior Supreme Court rulings already obligate states to provide such things to individuals in the country illegally.
In response to Hanen's question about the government's justification, Hartnett said it has long been a feature of immigration enforcement that there is discretion at every step of the process when dealing with illegal immigration deportations.
"The reason for this policy is to help focus Homeland Security on its priorities: stop border crossings, criminal aliens and national security threats. The policy is directing resources in a thoughtful way. It will take low-priority cases, put them aside and use our limited resources to focus on cases that matter the most to the safety of the nation," she said.
Oldham said a 26th state, Tennessee, would like to join the lawsuit.
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