Appeals court hears arguments in case brought by 26 states blocking Obama's immigration action

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NEW ORLEANS — Federal appeals judges on Friday peppered lawyers on both sides with questions in a fight over President Barack Obama's move to shield millions of immigrants from deportation.

A 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel held a special hearing in a closely watched case that is holding up Obama's immigration action.

A coalition of 26 states, led by Texas sued to block the plan. The hearing was on an appeal of a Texas judge's injunction.

The Justice Department argued that Texas has no legal standing in the matter. Texas' solicitor general countered that granting legal status to immigrants will be costly for Texas.

The judges did not rule and took the case under advisement.

Throughout the hearing chants and drumming by pro-immigrant protesters outside the courthouse filtered into the packed courtroom.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas, granted a preliminary injunction on Feb. 16 at the request of the states that oppose Obama's action. Hanen's rulings have temporarily blocked the Obama administration from implementing the policies that would allow as many as 5 million people in the U.S. illegally to remain.

The Justice Department appealed his ruling and Friday's special hearing — which took more than two hours — was lively as two of the judges had plenty of questions. They centered mostly on whether an individual state can seek to undo a federal immigration policy.

Benjamin Mizer, the Justice Department's principal deputy assistant attorney general, called Texas' suit unprecedented and argued that immigration policy is a domain of the federal government.

"If Texas is right, it could challenge an individual's right to seek asylum," Mizer said. "The states do not have standing in the downstream effects of a federal immigration policy."

Scott Keller, Texas' solicitor general, argued that Obama's immigration move has direct consequences because Texas will incur the costs of providing drivers' licenses, schooling and health care to immigrants granted permission to stay in the United States.

"This is one of the largest changes in immigration policy in the nation's history," Keller said. "What this is doing is conferring a legal presence" to people now living illegally in the country, he said. "We absolutely have a stake," he added.

Judges Jennifer Elrod, a George W. Bush appointee, and Stephen Higginson, an Obama appointee, often interrupted the legal arguments with queries. Judge Jerry Smith, a Ronald Reagan appointee, was the third judge on the panel.

Elrod seemed skeptical of the Justice Department's arguments while Higginson of those brought by Texas.

Obama announced the executive orders after the November midterm elections, saying inaction by Congress forced him to make sweeping changes to immigration rules on his own.

The first of Obama's orders — to expand a program protecting young immigrants from deportation if they were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — had been set to take effect Feb. 18.

The other major part would extend deportation protections to parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for several years. That provision was slated to begin on May 19.

Under grey skies threatening rain, immigrants and protesters in favor of Obama's policy held banners and waved at passing cars. One banner read "Immigration reform" and another said "Deportation Destroys Families." They also shouted demands and could be heard inside the courtroom from the street.

Victor Ibarra, a 43-year-old protester from Houston, was with a group of restaurant workers. He said it's time to change immigration policy.

"We are human. We want family to be together. We just want to be OK in this country, cause no trouble and have the opportunity to be in the U.S. all our life."

In a statement after the hearing, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called Obama's action an "unconstitutional amnesty plan."

He blasted the president for "granting federal and state benefits to law-breaking immigrants."

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