WASHINGTON — Undocumented immigrants and their supporters reacted angrily Thursday to the U.S. Supreme Court’s failure to revive deportation-relief programs for about 4 million people, vowing to continue to fight for legal status through the November presidential elections.
“This is something that we had in our hands, and they took it away,” said Rosario Reyes, 38, who brought her young son to the steps of the Supreme Court every Monday in recent weeks to await word of a ruling.
On Thursday, she said, her son cried when they learned the news.
“We had a dream, to live here in peace away from the gangs,” said Reyes, who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and crossed the border into the United States in 2004, after members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Salvador killed one of her brothers.
“But the fight is not over,” she said, vowing to help register voters for the November election. “We’re finished with living in the shadows.”
The 4-to-4 tie in the Supreme Court continues the 16-month-old injunction against President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program and an expanded version of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The court’s liberals and conservatives deadlocked, leaving in place a lower court’s decision that the president exceeded his powers in issuing the directive.
In the Washington area, an estimated 120,000 people without legal immigration status would have been eligible to apply for three-year stays of deportation under the programs. DACA has shielded about 700,000 people — all of whom came illegally to the United States as children, before 2007 — from the possibility of being sent back.
Thursday’s action left would-be applicants feeling deflated, with six months left in Obama’s term. Amid a presidential campaign where Republican Donald Trump has vowed to deport most illegal immigrants, while Democrat Hillary Clinton has pledged to take the deferred action programs even further, no resolution on the issue appears likely until after November.
“It’s absolutely crushing,” Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program in Northern Virginia, said. “For so many people, this has been their chance at stability.”
That’s how Yolanda Perez-Reyes saw it. For weeks now, she had checked every night for news of a Supreme Court ruling after returning to her home in Falls Church, Virginia, from her work cleaning houses.
Perez-Reyes, who has two U.S.-born children and fled gang violence in her native El Salvador 11 years ago, considered the DAPA program an answer to her prayers. On Thursday, she was quiet as she absorbed the effect of what happened at the high court.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Perez-Reyes said, speaking softly in Spanish on her cellphone from inside the Northern Virginia home where she was working. “We came here out of necessity to give our families better lives. Will I be able to stay in this country?”
The monthslong legal challenge to Obama’s programs has put many immigrants and their families through an emotional roller coaster, with street rallies, hunger strikes and counter protests that embody the nation’s bitter divide over illegal immigration.
“It’s been like a mountain crossing,” said Ana Campos, 31, who left El Salvador in 2006, married a Honduran man who arrived in the United States illegally in 2008, and in 2012, gave birth to a son.
Both parents would qualify for DAPA relief under Obama’s proposal. Campos, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, is among the would-be applicants who have held vigil outside the Supreme Court each week since the court heard the case in April.
“I feel really bad because, sincerely, we’d like to emerge from the darkness,” Campos said.
Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said the deferred action programs carried more than just the promise of temporary protections against being deported. They would significantly expand economic and educational opportunities for people who are in the country illegally, according to a study by Capps’s organization and the Washington-based Urban Institute, and ultimately could positively benefit up to 10 million people, including relatives of undocumented immigrants.
“Unauthorized immigrant parents have a lot of problems with autonomy at work, their working conditions, not being paid,” Capps said. “One would assume that, under the DAPA program, these things would improve.”
Jon Feere, a legal policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the ruling “kicks the can down the road” and leaves unresolved questions over whether the Obama administration is effectively enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.
“It guarantees this remains a hot political issue through the presidential debate,” he said.
With that likelihood, many of the affected families Thursday grappled with their continued uncertain futures in the United States.
“Today is really hard, and I’m still trying to find the words to process the pain that I feel,” said Zaira Garcia, a 23-year-old immigration activist in Texas, where the federal court challenge to Obama’s proposals originated — and gained support from 25 other states.
Garcia, whose parents are in the country illegally, broke down in tears during a call with reporters that included representatives of immigrant groups across the country.
“We live every day with an overwhelming fear of losing our parents,” she said.
Thursday’s tie also affects families from other parts of Latin America, Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Tsogtsaikhan Tenven and his wife, Yurtnasa Jigjid, are among thousands of Koreans in the Washington region who were awaiting word about the two programs.
The couple arrived in 2005, after being unable to find decent work in their homeland. Soon after, they sent for their son, Tsogtsaikhan Bati, who benefited from the DACA program in 2012.
While his parents worked at restaurants in Northern Virginia, Bati, now 22, used his legal status to attend George Mason University and, after graduating last year, get a job as a mortgage broker.
“My dad, he’s always been optimistic about the possibility of getting legal status,” Bati said, recalling plans his parents have made about moving from Arlington to a rural part of Virginia.
On Thursday, Bati said, he and his family felt duped.
“It just seems like they’re toying with people’s lives,” he said about the Supreme Court vote.