HOUSTON -- A federal judge in South Texas on Monday temporarily blocked President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, giving a coalition of 26 states time to pursue a lawsuit that aims to permanently stop the orders.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen's decision comes after a hearing in Brownsville, Texas, in January and puts on hold Obama's orders that could spare as many as five million people who are in the U.S. illegally from deportation.
Hanen wrote in a memorandum accompanying his order that the lawsuit should go forward and that without a preliminary injunction the states will "suffer irreparable harm in this case."
"The genie would be impossible to put back into the bottle," he wrote, adding that he agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that legalizing the presence of millions of people is a "virtually irreversible" action.
The federal government is expected to appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Neither the White House nor the Justice Department had any immediate comment early Tuesday.
The first of Obama's orders - to expand a program that protects young immigrants from deportation if they were brought to the U.S. illegally as children - was set to start taking effect Wednesday. The other major part of Obama's order, which extends deportation protections to parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for some years, was not expected to begin until May 19.
Joaquin Guerra, political director of the Texas Organizing Project, called the ruling a "temporary setback."
"We will continue getting immigrants ready to apply for administrative relief," he said in a statement.
The coalition of states, led by Texas and made up of mostly conservative states in the South and Midwest, argues that Obama has violated the "Take Care Clause" of the U.S. Constitution, which they say limits the scope of presidential power. They also say the order will force increased investment in law enforcement, health care and education.
In their request for the injunction, the coalition said it was necessary because it would be "difficult or impossible to undo the President's lawlessness after the Defendants start granting applications for deferred action."
"Judge Hanen's decision rightly stops the President's overreach in its tracks," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.
Hanen, who's been on the federal court since 2002 after being nominated by President George W. Bush, regularly handles border cases but wasn't known for being outspoken on immigration until a 2013 case. In his ruling in that case, he Hanen suggested the Homeland Security Department should be arresting parents living in the U.S. illegally who induce their children to cross the border illegally.
Congressional Republicans have vowed to block Obama's actions on immigration by cutting off Homeland Security Department spending for the program. Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled House passed a $39.7 billion spending bill to fund the department through the end of the budget year, but attached language to undo Obama's executive actions. The fate of that House-passed bill is unclear as Republicans in the Senate do not have the 60-vote majority needed to advance most legislation.
The White House has said Obama's executive order is not out of legal bounds and that the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress have said federal officials can set priorities in enforcing immigration laws. Past U.S. Supreme Court decisions have granted immigration officials "broad discretion" on deportation matters.
Others supporting Obama's executive order include a group of 12 mostly liberal states, including Washington and California, as well as the District of Columbia. They filed a motion with Hanen in support of Obama, arguing the directives will substantially benefit states and will further the public interest.
A group of law enforcement officials, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association and more than 20 police chiefs and sheriffs from across the country, also filed a motion in support, arguing the executive action will improve public safety by encouraging cooperation between police and individuals with concerns about their immigration status.