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A federal district judge in Dallas, in a surprise turnaround from an earlier opinion, on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit by immigration-enforcement agents seeking to halt an Obama administration program that gives reprieves from deportation to young immigrants in the country illegally.

Judge Reed O’Connor concluded that his court did not have jurisdiction to decide the suit, which was brought against Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, because it was an administrative dispute between federal employees and the government.

The outcome was unexpected because O’Connor, in an unusual preliminary decision in April, had said he agreed with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that the deportation-deferral program and a broader policy behind it were in violation of federal law.

“Congress has determined that this court does not have jurisdiction over plaintiffs’ disputes,” the judge said. Still, O’Connor maintained the agents are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the administration’s directive is contrary to the federal Immigration and Nationality Act.

The directive gives agents the ability to defer action on people unlawfully in the U.S. if they came to the country when they were younger than 16, are in school or have obtained a high-school diploma, haven’t been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or multiple misdemeanors, and aren’t a threat to public safety or national security.

O’Connor’s final ruling was a setback for groups advocating a hard line on immigration enforcement.
The lawsuit was brought by Chris Crane, an officer who leads the union of enforcement agents. He has been a favorite witness of conservatives in hearings in Washington, D.C., this year, because of his sharp criticism of the Obama administration’s enforcement record.

One lawyer for the agents is Kris Kobach, who is also the secretary of state of Kansas and who has guided many lawsuits seeking to curb illegal immigration.

Kobach said Wednesday that the judge’s opinion that the deportation deferrals were illegal would remain as a precedent. “The judge reiterated in no uncertain terms that the Obama administration’s directive does violate federal law,” Kobach said in a phone interview. “The question now is: What is the appropriate forum for reaching a resolution on the matter?”

Kobach said he and his clients are considering the ruling and deciding what course of action to take next.

President Obama started the deportation reprieves last year. As of July 10, a total of 400,562 young people had received deferrals, which allow them to work legally. The program has been popular in Latino and immigrant communities.

Material from Bloomberg News

is included in this report.