WASHINGTON >> The Obama administration appealed to the Supreme Court Friday to rescue its plans to shield from deportation millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Moving quickly to put the issue before the justices in time for a decision while President Barack Obama is still in office, the administration called for the court's immediate review of its plan to protect and give work permits to as many as 5 million immigrants. The immigrants affected are mainly the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.
The appeal, filed exactly a year after Obama announced his executive actions on immigration, injects the Supreme Court into a dispute between 26 mainly Republican-led states and the Democratic administration, amid a presidential race in which immigration has been a flashpoint. So far, the federal courts have sided with the GOP-led states and effectively blocked the plan.
If the high court agrees to hear and decide the case by late June, and if the justices side with the administration, that would leave roughly seven months in Obama's presidency to implement his plans.
But time is running short for consideration of the immigration issue in the court's current term. Texas, the lead state in the lawsuit, has 30 days to respond but could ask for more time. If the justices don't agree by mid-January to hear the case, the issue probably will not be decided until after Obama leaves office in January 2017.
At issue is the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, which Obama said would allow people who have been in the United States more than five years and who have children who are in the country legally to "come out of the shadows and get right with the law."
Texas quickly led a legal challenge to the program, and has won every round in court so far. Most recently, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the states on November 9.
Eleven days later, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said in the court filing that allowing those rulings to stand would force millions of people "to continue to work off the books, without the option of lawful employment to provide for their families."
The future of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally has been much discussed by Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has pledged to go further than Obama to protect large groups of immigrants from deportation.
Republican candidate Donald Trump has proposed deporting all people who are living in the U.S. illegally, an idea embraced by some GOP candidates and dismissed by others.
Obama said he was spurred to act on his own by Congress' failure to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. An earlier program that is not being challenged, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, shields immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. More than 720,000 young immigrants have been granted permission under that program to live and work legally in the United States.
Immigrant advocacy groups and unions rallied outside the court Friday to applaud the administration's action. But they also took aim at Republican presidential candidates. "Immigrant-bashing and hate-mongering is not going to get them elected in 2016," said Jaime Contreras, vice president of the Service Employees International Union affiliate 32BJ SEIU.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas predicted in a statement that his state ultimately would prevail in its challenge and called on Obama to work with Congress rather than "defend an unconstitutional executive order as he winds down his time in office."
The White House also has shifted its enforcement actions to focus on criminals, those who pose a threat to national security or public safety, and recent border-crossers.
The change means that people who are here illegally but who are not otherwise violating the law are less likely to face deportation.
About 231,000 people were deported in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to internal government documents obtained by The Associated Press.
That was the smallest number since 2006 and a 42 percent drop since a record high of more than 409,000 in 2012.
But Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said immigration agents in parts of the country continue to undertake deportation proceedings against people who would be protected by Obama's plan.