The Supreme Court deadlocked Thursday on a challenge to President Obama’s programs to spare millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, handing Obama a crushing defeat on an issue that has loomed large during his presidency and this year’s political campaign.
The 4-4 split on the court upholds a lower court ruling that halted Obama’s November 2014 effort to allow the unauthorized immigrants to live and work in the United States legally.
The court’s action came in a single sentence: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.’’
Those nine words shattered the hopes of 4 million unauthorized immigrants across the United States, including 45,000 in Massachusetts from Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other nations. Most are the parents of US citizens or green card holders, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
In Everett, a mother of two sobbed as the television broadcast the news. In Boston, a construction worker checked her phone and texted, “It’s all over.” In Waltham, Zoila Lopez tried to reassure her US-citizen children that she will not be deported, at least, not yet.
“It’s a huge, huge disappointment for many families and for me and for us all,” said Lopez, a 45-year-old mother of seven who has been in the United States for more than half her life. “There was hope, some hope. ... We’ll have to keep fighting.”
At the White House, Obama called the decision “heartbreaking” but said immigrants who would have qualified for his now-halted programs should not fear imminent deportation because they are “low priorities” for immigration enforcement.
“As long as you have not committed a crime, our limited immigration enforcement resources are not focused on you,” he said.
Obama warned that Congress eventually will have to tackle the problem of the nation’s 11 million immigrants here illegally. Less than half would have benefited from his programs. Addressing immigration had been one of Obama’s earliest campaign promises. But with less than seven months left in his term, he signaled there was little that he could do. He said the issue would be up to voters when they pick his successor.
“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.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan hailed court’s the decision. He said he had filed a brief in the case, US vs. Texas, accusing the president of overstepping his bounds.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling makes the president’s executive action on immigration null and void,” Ryan said in a statement. “This is another major victory in our fight to restore the separation of powers.”
The Supreme Court’s tie effectively halted two immigration programs Obama created in November 2014 after Congress failed to pass an immigration bill. The programs would have granted temporary work permits to an estimated 3.6 million parents of US citizens and green card holders and also to 274,000 immigrants who arrived in the country as children but did not qualify for an earlier program, allowing them to apply for driver’s licenses, and offering a respite from the fear of deportation.
But before the programs went into effect, Texas and 25 other states filed a federal lawsuit to block them. In February 2015, US District Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas issued a temporary injunction to halt the programs, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld his decision.
The Supreme Court ruling on Thursday let those rulings stand and did not set a national precedent. The decision did not decide whether Obama’s programs were legal but instead left in place the lower court’s injunction pending further litigation, according to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a group that joined the appeal before the Supreme Court.
Obama made clear on Thursday that the Supreme Court ruling did not affect a similar program he created in 2012 that allowed more than 730,000 immigrants who arrived as children, including nearly 7,000 in Massachusetts, to receive renewable two-year work permits.
Though Obama said low-risk immigrants should not fear immediate deportation, many advocates were unsure how long this policy would last.
The presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, supports Obama’s immigration policies but GOP candidate Donald J. Trump had vowed to rescind the immigration actions and deport all immigrants here illegally.
Trump said the ruling “blocked one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a president.”
In Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey and Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston expressed disappointment while the Brazilian Women’s Group, Agencia Alpha, and other advocates for immigrants vowed to mobilize voters for the November elections. Many fear Trump would carry out mass deportations.
“That’s where our focus is going to be,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
Walsh vowed to move forward with a July 23 free clinic in Roxbury, where advocates had planned to help eligible immigrants apply for Obama’s programs. Now, volunteers will screen immigrants to see if they are eligible to apply for another form of assistance.
“Millions of families in the United States and thousands of Bostonians have been waiting too long for some form of immigration relief,” Walsh said.
Many immigrants who had hoped to apply for Obama’s programs are from Central American nations beset by some of the highest homicide rates in the world, the legacy of civil wars that ravaged the region, weakened government institutions, and led to an increase in organized crime.
“I’m in shock,” said Lucy Pineda, executive director of Latinos United in Massachusetts, an Everett nonprofit that had been helping immigrants prepare to apply for the programs. “We were much more sure that this would happen.”
Days ago, a woman who had hoped to apply for a work permit sat in Pineda’s office with her husband and two children, one of them a 7-year-old US citizen who would have made them eligible for Obama’s executive action.
“Hopefully one day things will change, but it hurts,” the woman said, sobbing. “It’s sad, believe me. Very sad.”
In Chelsea, at Tito’s Bakery, Claudia Urbina said she was holding out hope for change. She, too, had hoped to apply for the program.
“I can only wait. I’m not sad or happy or anything,” Urbina, a 36-year-old mother of two US citizens, said. “We’ve waited for so long, why not just wait a little longer?”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Martin Finucane and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com.