In a direct challenge to the Obama administration, a federal appeals court temporarily halted the deportation of seven immigrants until federal authorities explain whether they should be deported.
"It has caused quite a stir," said San Jose immigration lawyer Bernadette Connolly, whose client David Aranda Rodriguez is one of the seven who won the unexpected reprieve Monday.
A panel of the San-Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to give the Obama administration until March 19 to explain if Aranda Rodriguez and the other immigrants deserve a break under a new enforcement policy known as prosecutorial discretion.
The dissenting judge called putting the deportations on hold an "audacious ruling" that exceeded the judges' authority.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton had announced in June that immigration authorities would stop detaining and deporting some illegal immigrants who have close family and community ties and no criminal records.
Aranda Rodriguez fits that bill, said his lawyer.
The San Joaquin County construction worker and Mexican immigrant has lived in the United States for more than two decades and cares for two U.S. citizen children.
"He's the kind of person Mr. Obama and also the Morton memo is talking about. He exemplifies that," Connolly said.
Aranda Rodriguez lost his case in the immigration courts before appealing to the higher
Although the Obama administration has said it will review all 300,000 pending deportation cases to find thousands it can close, its slow implementation has caused some confusion.
The circuit court panel -- led by Judges William Canby and Raymond Fisher -- is now prodding for more answers. The judges said they would wait for the Obama administration to say whether Aranda Rodigruez and the other immigrants were eligible for reprieves. The judges halted five cases, two of which involve couples.
Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain's dissent called it an "audacious ruling" because the executive branch has authority over how it chooses to prosecute cases.
"The majority thus needlessly catapults this court into a realm of decision-making from which it is constitutionally walled off," he wrote.
Republican lawmakers echoed O'Scannlain's criticism in condemning the panel for judicial overreach.
"The 9th Circuit has a history of legislating from the bench and now they have turned the Obama administration's prosecutorial discretion guidelines into an excuse for their judicial activism," wrote U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a statement released Tuesday.
The panel's rulings came on Monday.