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US top court divided on major immigration case

President Barack Obama's plan to delay deportation for nearly half of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants was fraught with uncertainty Monday, as the US Supreme Court appeared closely divided on the issue.

[WASHINGTON] President Barack Obama's plan to delay deportation for nearly half of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants was fraught with uncertainty Monday, as the US Supreme Court appeared closely divided on the issue.

If the eight justices deadlock in their ruling, due by late June, the plan would remain on hold, dealing a bruising defeat to Mr Obama during his last year in office and pushing the issue to the next president.

Hundreds of immigrant rights activists massed outside in blazing sunshine to mark the high-profile hearing, brandishing heart-shaped signs reading "Keep families together" and chanting "Si se puede" - putting a Spanish twist on Mr Obama's 2008 campaign slogan "Yes We Can."

Chief justice John Roberts and justice Anthony Kennedy, two conservatives whose opinion is critical in this case, sparred repeatedly with the Obama administration's attorney during an extended 90-minute session of oral arguments.

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At stake is a series of executive actions the president took in Nov 2014 to bypass a Republican-held Congress that refused to enact his promised reform of America's immigration system.

One initiative, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), would shield from deportation people who have lived in the United States since 2010 and whose children are US citizens or residents. They would also be able to obtain a work authorization and pay taxes.

Another would expand on an existing program that grants a reprieve to immigrants who entered the country as children.

In unveiling his actions, Mr Obama said he wanted to prioritize deportations of "felons, not families. Criminals not children. Gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids."

The four liberal-leaning justices appeared to defend Mr Obama's plan and pointed to similar actions by his predecessors.

But critics accuse Mr Obama of overstepping his authority, a view echoed on the conservative wing of the bench.

"It's as if the president is setting the policy and the Congress is executing it," Mr Kennedy said. "That's just upside down."

Mirroring Mr Obama's gridlock with Congress on immigration is that of a Supreme Court evenly split between liberals and conservatives while Senate Republicans refuse to hold hearings on filling the seat left vacant by the death of justice Antonin Scalia.

Mr Roberts, who has insisted the Supreme Court should stand above the political fray, is likely to focus on whether Texas and 25 other mostly Republican-led states would suffer enough injury as a result of Mr Obama's actions to legally sue the federal government.

Texas for instance claims it would cost the state millions of dollars in public funds to provide driver's licenses at a subsidized cost to the huge group of immigrants who would be allowed to stay in the United States.

That question dominated much of the court's session.

If the states lack legal standing, that would be enough to dismiss the case - allowing the justices to eschew a decision on more fundamental aspects of the immigration debate, an immensely divisive issue at the heart of the White House race.

Justice Stephen Breyer, a liberal, noted that if Texas is allowed to sue the government on immigration, that would open the door for states to challenge "all kinds" of federal regulations with which they disagree.

But Mr Roberts, the chief justice, repeatedly challenged solicitor general Donald Verrilli as he argued on behalf of the administration that Texas had no grounds to sue.

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has sharpened the fault lines on immigration by vowing to build a wall along the Mexican border, and deport all of America's undocumented immigrants.

Nearly five million people would get relief from deportation under Mr Obama's policy.

Texas solicitor general Scott Keller called the actions "an unprecedented, unlawful assertion of executive power," and "one of the largest changes in immigration policy in our nation's history."

But Mr Verrilli stressed that those who would win a reprieve would be a low priority for deportations anyway.

"There is a pressing humanitarian concern in avoiding the breakup of families that contain US citizen children," he said.

America's huge population of undocumented immigrants is "living in the shadows," said Sonia Sotomayor, the court's first Hispanic justice and the daughter of Puerto Rican-born parents.

"They are here, whether we want them or not," she argued.