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Court puts immigrants’ applications, hopes on hold

Attendees held signs at a forum in Houston Tuesday.
Attendees held signs at a forum in Houston Tuesday.(Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)

Vanessa Santos’s sister, husband, and daughter are all US citizens. She is the only one without permission to stay in the country.

She had hoped that would start to change Wednesday, when the 38-year-old native of Brazil could finally apply for temporary residency under a federal immigration initiative.

But Santos, and thousands of other immigrants here illegally, will have to wait.

Late Monday, a federal judge in Texas temporarily halted two controversial immigration initiatives that President Obama announced last year and planned to carry out starting this week. Across the nation, immigrants have flocked to information sessions and have gathered the records needed to apply.

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“I have the pile. I have the check. I was ready to go to the post office tomorrow,” said Santos, who arrived in the United States at age 14 and later overstayed her visa. She called the judge’s decision devastating.

US District Court Judge Andrew S. Hanen, in the border city of Brownsville, Texas, issued a temporary injunction against the programs on the Presidents’ Day holiday Monday night, according to the court. He said the states fighting the immigration initiatives had the right to bring the case and that the Obama administration had failed to follow the proper procedure in carrying them out.

The ruling marked a preliminary victory for Texas, Maine, and 24 other states that had sued to stop the programs, saying they would create an unfair burden on them.

The injunction paralyzed Wednesday’s planned expansion of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which started in 2012, and grants temporary work permits and residency to illegal immigrants brought here as children. Wednesday’s expansion would have removed an age cap, allowing immigrants age 31 and older to apply. The judge’s ruling does not affect the existing program, known by its initials, DACA.

The judge also halted a second program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which would grant work permits to parents of US citizens and green card holders starting in May.

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The White House immediately vowed to appeal the judge’s order to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of judges that could uphold the injunction or overturn it. But Hanen’s order forced the Obama administration to suspend the programs just days after Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had urged immigrants to apply.

Advocates for immigrants said they had expected the ruling from Hanen, a Republican appointee, and some worried that the Fifth Circuit might uphold the ruling because the appeals court tends to be conservative.

But other lawyers said they expected the appellate judges to overrule the district court, noting that Obama had ample legal precedent for the programs.

“I’m pretty confident the Fifth Circuit is going to overturn,” said Jeannie Kain, chairwoman of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and managing attorney at the nonprofit Irish International Immigrant Center in Boston. “I’m still really hopeful that things are going to go forward for sure.”

Melissa Keaney, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, said she is urging immigrants to continue to gather passports, birth certificates, and other records so they can apply if the injunction is lifted.

“It’s hard to say how long that might take,” Keaney said. “We’re not giving any sort of timeline because I think that’s really hard to foresee at this point.”

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Tuesday that Obama’s initiatives could help “thousands of families.” Boston has held information sessions, including one planned for next week, and promoted the immigration initiatives on social media and via a telephone hot line.

“I am disappointed by Monday’s temporary injunction,” Walsh said in a statement. “I am optimistic that the court system will find a resolution swiftly so we can move forward with this important initiative.”

As Obama’s supporters rallied, his opponents urged Congress to block the stalled initiatives permanently.

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, said the judge’s injunction could prevent millions of illegal immigrants from competing with Americans for jobs.

“Struggling American families can find hope in the judge’s ruling,” Beck said in a statement.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform called the ruling “an important victory for the integrity of US immigration law” and said they expected the Fifth Circuit to uphold the injunction.

The group’s president, Daniel Stein, said the programs “would irreparably harm the interests of American citizens and the states and communities in which they live.”

Others sought to steer Republicans in a different direction Tuesday.

Alfonso Aguilar, former head of the citizenship office under the George W. Bush administration and now executive director of a conservative advocacy group, said Republicans should act now to create a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Aguilar also criticized immigration groups for settling for Obama’s temporary solutions.

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“I’m very disappointed with immigration advocates who apparently have crossed their arms and are willing to live with this half-baked solution rather than work with Republicans and try to get a permanent solution,” said Aguilar, who runs the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership in Washington.

The judge’s temporary ruling left immigrants uncertain but vowing to continue preparing their applications and saving money for the application fees, which cost $465 per person.

The night the judge published his order, Angela Arce, a community leader with the Essex County Community Organization, a network of 30 faith congregations, prayed in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Lynn with a group organizing an information session for applicants next week.

The housecleaner from Paraguay came to America 15 years ago, leaving a budding law career to earn money in the United States for medical bills after her boyfriend, now her husband, was badly injured in a traffic accident. Now they have two American children.

She said the judge’s injunction depressed her, but she took solace in the help from colleagues who are not immigrants. She said she campaigned alongside them to raise the minimum wage and provide sick leave to all workers.

Now, she said, they are helping immigrants like her.

“A judge is powerful,” she said, “but God is more.”


Maria Sacchetti can be reached at maria.sacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.