WASHINGTON — A short-handed and deeply divided Supreme Court deadlocked Thursday on President Barack Obama's immigration plan to help millions living in the U.S. illegally, effectively killing the plan for the rest of his presidency and raising the stakes even further for the November elections.
The hotly debated direction of America's national immigration policy as well as the balance of power on the high court now will be determined in large part by the presidential and congressional elections. Immigration and the court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia's death in February already were featuring prominently in the campaign.
Scalia's vote likely would have meant an outright ruling against Obama's immigration expansion rather than the 4-4 tie, a much more significant defeat for the president and immigrant advocates.
Democrat Hillary Clinton declared that as president she would work to restore the programs and go further. Republican Donald Trump said he would make sure Obama's "unconstitutional actions" never came back.
In another major case affected by Scalia's absence, the court delivered a surprisingly strong defense of affirmative action in higher education in a dispute over admissions policies at the University of Texas.
Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in the 4-3 decision upheld the Texas admissions plan and reaffirmed that colleges can take account of race in admissions in pursuit of a diverse student body. Scalia, long an opponent of affirmative action, had suggested during arguments in December that some black students would benefit from being at a "slower-track school," instead of Texas' flagship campus in Austin.
Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case because she worked on it while at the Justice Department.
On immigration, the tie is not likely to lead to an increase in deportations since the president retains ample discretion to decide whom to deport. But the ruling stymies his effort to bring people "out from the shadows" by giving them the right to work legally in the U.S.
One of the Obama programs would have protected the parents of children who are in the country legally. The other was an expansion of a program that benefits people who were brought to the U.S. as children. Obama decided to move forward on his own after Republicans won control of the Senate in 2014 and the chances for an immigration overhaul, already remote, were further damaged.
Obama said Thursday's impasse "takes us further from the country we aspire to be."
The candidates vying to replace him split as plainly as the justices.
Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said that if she is elected she will defend the Obama programs "and do everything possible under the law to go further to protect families."
Republican Trump, on the other hand, said the court outcome "blocked one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a president" and the split decision 'makes clear what's at stake in November."
And the people directly affected?
Mexican immigrant Cristina Molina of New York City, said she was frustrated and upset. "I feel like I'm in limbo," Molina, 48, said through an interpreter. She has lived in the United States for 23 years and said she would have been eligible for one of the programs Obama announced in 2014.
A Supreme Court tie sets no national precedent but leaves in place a ruling by a lower court. The justices issued a one-sentence opinion, with no further comment.
A full nine-justice court agreed to hear the case in January, but by the time of the arguments in late April, Scalia had died. That left eight justices to decide the case, and the court presumably split along liberal-conservative lines, although no breakdown was announced.
The federal appeals court in New Orleans had said the Obama administration lacked the authority to shield up to 4 million immigrants from deportation and make them eligible for work permits without approval from Congress. That ruling now remains in place.
Texas had led 26 Republican-dominated states in challenging the Obama initiatives in court. The lawsuit was heard by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas. Hanen previously had criticized the administration for lax immigration enforcement.
Hanen sided with the states, blocking the programs from taking effect. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the Justice Department rushed an appeal to the high court.
Had Scalia been alive, he almost certainly would have voted with his fellow conservatives to form a majority in favor of the states.
In practical terms, an election victory by Trump could mean an end to the programs anyway, since he has vowed to deport the roughly 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
If Clinton wins, the Senate will at some point fill the vacancy created by Scalia's death — either with Obama's nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, or a Clinton choice. In either case, legal challenges would come to a court with a majority of Democratic-appointed justices.
The Republican-led Senate has refused to hold a hearing or a vote on Garland's nomination. He would not have been able to participate in the cases argued this term, but the court might have avoided 4-4 ties and ordered cases to be argued anew in the next term if he had been confirmed.
Associated Press writers Lisa Lerer in Washington and Deepti Hajela, in New York City, contributed to this report.