President Bush and Congress tried and failed to pass an immigration bill in 2007 that would have provided a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million living here illegally. Obama promised to make overhauling the immigration system a priority in his first year, but the effort is collapsing.
Obama's secretary of Homeland Security, former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, stopped the workplace raids that were common during the Bush administration. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement has continued to arrest and deport hundreds of thousands of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants each year.
A February memo by James M. Chaparro, ICE's head of detention and removals, disclosed that the agency's goal is to deport 400,000 people a year, up from about 349,000 deported in 2008 and 197,000 in 2005.
The Las Vegas couple at issue in the 9th Circuit case have no criminal records, court records say. They were brought here from Mexico as children, and now have American children of their own, ages 12 and 8.
The couple came to the attention of immigration authorities in 2001, after they were conned into filing a political asylum claim in search of U.S. citizenship. They had paid $3,000 apiece to a "notario," a bogus immigration consultant, who filed the claim. They later withdrew their asylum claim, but it was too late: They had come to the attention of federal officials, and the Homeland Security Department initiated deportation proceedings.
The national law firm Akin Gump took their case, pro bono, into the federal courts.
In a telephone interview, Saturnina Martinez wept as she talked about the prospect of being expelled from the only country she has ever known.
"I paid my taxes. I worked," said Martinez, who came here as an infant. "I don't know why they want to send me to a country I've never even visited."
The three-judge panel concluded it had to grant the government's request to expel the couple. Yet the panel's two Republicans and one Democrat urged immigration authorities to drop the case.
"It's hard for me to understand how the government or how DHS believes the interests of the United States are served by proceeding with this matter," Judge Richard R. Clifton, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, said at last year's hearing.
The case had been going forward until this week, when a reporter e-mailed a transcript of the judges' remarks to senior Homeland Security and ICE officials. However, immigrant rights advocates say thousands of cases like it haven't been subject to reprieves.
"There is one horror story after the next," said Craig Shagin, an immigration attorney in Harrisburg, Pa., who represents several longtime U.S. residents facing deportation despite having American children and no criminal records. "If you're in this business, you see it up close and personal, and it tears you apart."