By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Friday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to revive President Barack Obama's executive action to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, saying Republican-led states had no legal basis to challenge it.
Exactly a year to the day after Obama announced the plan, the Justice Department formally appealed a 2-1 decision on Nov. 9 by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed a lower court's February decision to halt it.
If the appeals court ruling is left in place, millions of people would "continue to work off the books, without the option of lawful employment to provide for their families," Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said in the filing to the nine justices.
Obama's executive order would let up to 4.7 million illegal immigrants live in the United States without the threat of deportation. It was directed at people with no criminal records whose children are U.S. citizens.
Verrilli wrote that the Supreme Court should hear the case because the appeals court "upheld an unprecedented nationwide injunction against implementing a federal immigration enforcement policy of great national importance."
If left intact, the ruling would "allow states to frustrate the federal government's enforcement of the nation's immigration laws," Verrilli added.
The legal challenge was made by 26 Republican-governed states led by Texas that contend Obama overstepped his presidential powers by bypassing the Republican-led Congress and acting unilaterally.
The states have no legal standing to sue the U.S. government over decisions on how to enforce federal laws, the administration said in its appeal.
A spokesman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the state will "continue defending the rule of law" against "the president's unconstitutional use of executive power."
The administration had said on Nov. 10 that it planned an appeal. The justices will consider whether to hear the case once they receive responses from the states, due within 30 days.
If they hear the dispute, it would become one of the centerpiece cases of the court's term that runs through June, along with a challenge to a restrictive Texas abortion law.
Two hours after the appeal was lodged, dozens of immigration advocates rallied in front of the Supreme Court building, chanting in English and Spanish and waving placards. One read, "Children have the right to be with their parents."
Separately, the appeals court on Thursday allowed three illegal immigrant women from Texas to participate in the case in support of the administration.
Obama's executive order, which came after a bipartisan immigration policy overhaul bill passed by the Senate died in the House of Representatives, expanded a program first launched in 2012 that deferred deportation for immigrants brought to the United States as children.
The immigration issue has driven a wedge between Hispanics, a voting bloc with rising clout, and Republicans, many of whom take a hard line against illegal immigrants. Most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are Hispanic.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)