By Joseph Tanfani
February 20, 2015

In his fight to help millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, President Obama’s most implacable enemy may not be House Republicans or conservative governors, but the ticking clock.

A lengthy battle in a Texas court case could prove fatal for his plans to provide a temporary haven for up to 5 million people in the U.S. illegally. If the legal fight continues into next year, it will be difficult if not impossible for officials to process millions of applications before Obama leaves office.

The more people it can shield from the threat of deportation, the administration theorizes, the more difficult it would be for Obama’s successor to make a politically unpopular decision to roll back the programs.

Driven in part by this sense of urgency, the White House announced Friday it would seek an emergency stay of an order issued this week in Texas by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen that froze the programs.

Already, Hanen’s court order has complicated decisions for the administration and created fear and uncertainty for millions of potential applicants, even as immigrant groups were preparing to roll out a campaign to persuade people to apply. Many of those advocates, enraged by the delay, have been pressing the administration for a quick appeal.

“In my office there’s probably 20 people out there now waiting to see an immigration attorney, and none of them are reassured by what’s going on right now,” said Ellen Dumesnil, executive director of the International Institute of the Bay Area, which provides legal services.

“At the end of the day, they’re playing political football with people’s lives, and it’s just not right,” she said.

But the lawsuit, brought by 26 mostly Republican-led states, could take months to get resolved, even if the appeals go quickly, legal experts say.

For procedural reasons, Obama’s lawyers will first ask Hanen to stay his own injunction, though that is considered unlikely. That filing will come Monday, the White House said.

A stay would keep Hanen’s order from being in effect while the appeals in the case continue, allowing federal officials to resume their preparations for the immigration programs. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration would also continue with an appeal to permanently overturn Hanen’s order, but the timing of that isn’t certain.

In a 123-page decision, Hanen ruled that Obama had not followed the law when he acted under his executive authority in November to allow immigrants to apply for a three-year permit to live and work in the U.S. without fear of being deported. The largest program would be open to up to 4 million adults who have lived here since 2010 and have children who are citizens or legal residents.

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