The Supreme Court has agreed to an election-year review of Barack Obama’s executive orders to allow up to five million immigrants to “come out of the shadows” and work legally in the US.
The justices said they will consider undoing lower court rulings that blocked the plan from taking effect in the midst of a presidential campaign where the issue has already featured prominently.
The case probably will be argued in April and decided by late June, about a month before the presidential nominating conventions of both parties.
The immigrants who would benefit from the administration’s plan are mainly the parents of US citizens and lawful permanent residents.
The border state of Texas is leading 26 states in challenging the immigration plan.
So far, the federal courts have sided with the states to keep the administration from issuing work permits and allowing the immigrants to begin receiving some federal benefits.
If the justices eventually side with the administration, that would leave roughly seven months in Mr Obama’s presidency to implement his plans.
At issue is the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans programme, which Mr Obama said in late 2014 would allow people who have been in the United States more than five years and who have children who are in the country legally to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law”.
Texas quickly led a legal challenge to the programme and has won every round in court so far. Most recently, in November, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the states, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr said in his court filing that allowing those rulings to stand would force millions of people “to continue to work off the books, without the option of lawful employment to provide for their families”.
The administration said Texas and the other states do not even have the right to challenge the plan in federal court. The lower courts decided that Texas does have the right, or standing, to sue because at least 500,000 people living in Texas would qualify for work permits and thus become eligible for driving licences, the cost of which are subsidised by the state.
“Texas would incur millions of dollars in costs,” the state said in its brief to the Supreme Court.
The future of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally has been much discussed by Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has pledged to go further than Mr Obama to protect large groups of immigrants from deportation.
Republican candidate Donald Trump has proposed deporting all people who are living in the US illegally, an idea embraced by some Republican candidates and dismissed by others.
Mr Obama said he was spurred to act on his own by the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration legislation.