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By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Fourteen states are joining in the push to salvage President Barack Obama’s plan to grant legal protection to millions of people in the U.S. illegally — even if it’s only revived in their parts of the country.

A federal judge has frozen the immigration program while a lawsuit filed by Texas and 25 other states proceeds. Those states, mostly led by Republican governors, contend Obama is forcing their taxpayers to pick up the financial burden for millions of immigrants.

Now, 14 mostly Democratic-led states — some with the highest populations of immigrants eligible for Obama’s program — are presenting an alternative argument: They say allowing immigrants some protections would actually benefit them, in the form of increased tax revenues and stronger families.

Lawyers for these states and the District of Columbia filed a brief Thursday arguing that a federal appeals court should lift the lower court’s order — or at least limit its effect to Texas and perhaps the other 25 states that are also suing.

“A single state cannot dictate national immigration policy,” the states wrote in their legal argument, filed in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The filing, part of a legal strategy coordinated with the Obama administration, cements a political rift between red and blue states on the president’s executive action. It also signals an effort by the immigration plan’s supporters to sustain momentum while the program is held up in court.

Justice Department lawyers also asked the appeals court Thursday for an emergency ruling that would allow the program to go forward, saying that the lower-court judge’s decision halting it was “unprecedented and wrong.”

The motion says states have no business interfering in the federal government’s job to enforce immigration laws. Allowing the decision to stand would hurt the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to police the border, the appeal says, by preventing authorities from concentrating on deporting criminals.

The dispute is probably headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the administration is trying to move the case along quickly — and to get the program up and running while Obama is in office. It asked the appellate court for a decision on the stay within 14 days and for arguments on the constitutional issues in the case to be held by June.

Announced last year, Obama’s plan would grant a three-year protection from deportation to up to 5 million people living in the country illegally. The largest piece, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, would offer three-year work permits to parents of U.S. citizens or other legal residents. It wouldn’t be open to recent arrivals or to people with serious criminal records.

In the friend-of-the-court brief, California, New York, Illinois and the other states say that giving temporary legal status to millions of immigrants will have “far-reaching” benefits to local economies, by allowing people to earn higher salaries and pay taxes.

The majority of immigrants eligible for what the administration calls “deferred action” live in those states: California, with 1.5 million, New York, with 338,000, and Illinois, with 280,000. Texas has the second-highest number of eligible immigrants, with 743,000, according to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute.

The left-leaning Center for American Progress says that Obama’s program could increase California’s tax revenues by $904 million over five years, and that Texas could get an estimated $338 million.

“With over 1 million hard-working Californians eligible … our state has a major stake in the successful implementation of the president’s immigration actions,” state Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement.

U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen froze the program nationwide based on Texas’ claim that the program would force them to incur costs by issuing drivers licenses to immigrants. The federal government and their allied states call that claim bogus, but say that even if the injunction stands, it should only apply to Texas, or the other states that oppose the program.

“There is no basis for forcing the injunction on us,” California and the states say in their brief.

The competing arguments from warring states underscore the point that only the federal government should decide questions of immigration and national security, immigration attorney David Leopold said.

“For states to stick their noses in it really is a violation of all notions that we have about how to run this country,” he said.

Some experts say it’s not likely the courts would allow the program to go forward only in parts of the country.

“If what they are doing is unlawful, it doesn’t make sense to allow them to do it in some states and not others,” said Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, who filed a brief in the case supporting the coalition led by Texas.

Aside from the legal questions, it likely would be a logistical nightmare to only partly open the deferred action program. Applicants are to mail in paperwork that would be processed at a center in Virginia.

“In practice, it would be hard to have a program in some states and not other states,” said Marc Rosenblum, a deputy director at the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s just a little hard to imagine how that would be enforced, since no one is checking where these people live.”

Photo: President Barack Obama receives a standing ovation as he takes the stage to discuss college affordability and access to quality higher education at Georgia Tech on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in Atlanta.   (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)


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