WASHINGTON --President Barack Obama sought to reassure millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally that he has no plans to deport them, while acknowledging that the Supreme Court's deadlock Thursday marks the end of the road for his push to reform the U.S. immigration system.
Though Obama predicted an immigration overhaul is inevitable, he conceded it won't happen while he's president due to opposition from the current Congress. Working to lay the groundwork for the next president to pick up the effort, he cast the election in November as a referendum on how the country would treat its immigrants.
"We're going to have to make a decision about whether we are a people who tolerate the hypocrisy of a system where the workers who pick our fruit or make our beds never have the chance to get right with the law," Obama said. "Or whether we're going to give them a chance, just like our forebears had a chance, to take responsibility and give their kids a better future."
Obama spoke at the White House in an appearance hastily arranged after a tie vote in the Supreme Court effectively killed his plans to shield millions from deportation and grant them work permits. Because the high court couldn't agree, a lower court's ruling blocking his executive actions remains in place, putting an indefinite freeze on what the White House had hoped would be the heart of the Obama's legacy on immigration.
Obama's plan aimed to temporarily remove the threat of deportation for up to four million immigrants, building on an earlier Obama plan affecting people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Though the court's move means that expanded group won't be eligible for work permits, Obama said his administration would continue prioritizing deportations only for new arrivals and those with criminal records.
"As long as you have not committed a crime, our limited immigration enforcement resources are not focused on you," he said.
Still, he called the outcome a "frustration" and said it was "heartbreaking for the millions of immigrants who made their lives here."
Obama had long said he didn't have the executive authority to expand his first deferred action program, telling activists they should focused their attention on pressure Congress, not the White House. But advocates continued to blast Obama for tightening enforcement of current laws at the border. When a leading advocate called him the "deporter-in-chief," Obama bristled at the label and within months had changed course.
The president used the court's deadlock as a fresh opportunity to chide Republicans for refusing to consider his nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. He lamented that policies he announced two years ago "can't go forward at this stage until there is a ninth justice on the court to break the tie."
Obama said the onus would now fall on the next president. In a veiled critique of GOP presumptive nominee Donald Trump and his calls for a border wall, Obama said the U.S. needn't "wall ourselves off" from those who look different.
"It is my firm belief that immigration is not something to fear," Obama said.