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Supreme Court Upholds DACA, Protecting 'Dreamers' (For Now)

Advocates for immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court June 15, 2020 in Washington, D.C.
(Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images)
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By Nina Totenberg | NPR, with contributions from Josie Huang

A narrowly divided Supreme Court extended Thursday a life-support line to some 650,000 so-called DREAMers, allowing them to remain safe from deportation for now, while the Trump administration jumps through the administrative hoops that the court said are required before ending the program.

The vote was 5-to-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts casting the decisive fifth vote that sought to bridge the liberal and conservative wings of the court.

Roberts and the court's four liberal justices said the Department of Homeland Security's decision to rescind DACA was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act. (Read the decision here.)

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In his opinion, Roberts wrote: "The appropriate recourse is therefore to remand to DHS so that it may reconsider the problem anew."

Begun in 2012, the DACA program gave temporary protection from deportation to qualified individuals brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Under the program, the DREAMers were allowed to work legally and apply for college loans if they met certain requirements and passed a background check.

President Trump sought to end the program shortly after he took office, maintaining that it was illegal and unconstitutional from the start.

But he was blocked by the lower courts and appealed to the Supreme Court, where Thursday the justices divided over both substance and timing.

The muddled state of play likely prevents the administration from enacting any plans to begin deportations immediately, but there is little doubt that should President Trump be reelected, the second-term president almost certainly would seek to end the program.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, wrote: "Today's decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision."

The court's decision presents a particularly delicate political problem for congressional Republicans just four months before the national election in November.

DACA has been an enormously popular program, with public opinion polls showing widespread support for it among Democrats, independents and Republicans.

DACA recipients have gotten advanced degrees; they have started businesses; they have bought houses, had children who are U.S. citizens; and 90% have jobs. Indeed, 29,000 are health care professionals, working on the front lines of the COVID-19 response.

So popular has the DACA program been that the Senate Republican leadership not once, but twice, worked closely with Democrats to work out a deal to protect the Dreamers, only to have Trump renege at the last moment.

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What Trump will do before the November election is anyone's guess. The heart of his political base is opposed to immigration in just about every form. But this is no ordinary time.

Amid pandemic and racial crisis, the court's ruling is likely to focus on yet another issue where the president is at odds with public sentiment, while at the same time putting Republican officeholders between the rock of their president's views, and the hard place of their own reelection bids.


Joseph Edlow, deputy director of policy for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the court's opinion "has no basis in law and merely delays the President's ability to end the illegal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty program."

In a written statement, Edlow continued:

"DACA was created through an Executive Branch memorandum after President Obama said repeatedly that it was illegal for him to do so unilaterally and despite the fact that Congress affirmatively rejected the proposal on multiple occasions. The constitutionality of this de facto amnesty program created by the Obama administration has been widely questioned since its inception. The fact remains that under DACA, hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens continue to remain in our country in violation of the laws passed by Congress and to take jobs Americans need now more than ever. Ultimately, DACA is not a long-term solution for anyone, and if Congress wants to provide a permanent solution for these illegal aliens it needs to step in to reform our immigration laws and prove that the cornerstone of our democracy is that presidents cannot legislate with a 'pen and a phone.'"

DACA recipient Christine Park, 27, demonstrates in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Christine Park)

The Supreme Court decision has been highly anticipated in California which has the most DACA recipients of any state -- about 200,000.

It is perhaps no surprise then that DACA has high levels of support in the state. A 2018 Public Policy Institute of California found that 81% of likely voters in California favor the protections offered by DACA.

The looming court decision had been weighing heavily on DACA recipients like Christine Park, who told LAist last week that she was feeling stressed already by reports of police brutality and the pandemic.

"I'm not gonna lie to you," said the 27-year-old Park who was brought to the U.S. from South Korea by her parents when she was 10. "I have not been coping well."

But another DACA recipient, Rodrigo Mijangos Aguilar, told LAist last week that however the justices were to rule, he was still optimistic that strong public support for DACA recipients will lead to a permanent solution approved by Congress.

He said he can't imagine being deported to Mexico, from where his parents brought him when he was just a little over a year old.

"If I get thrown into that environment, I don't know how well I would do," said Mijangos Aguilar, who is 28. "I don't know how well my peers would do. And it's an inhumane thing to do."

Local organizations like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, known as CHIRLA, and the Korean Resource Center had been recommending that immigrants whose DACA status is expiring in the next year still renew. The thinking ahead of the decision was that even if the Supreme Court ruled unfavorably, this could build some room for their DACA protections to be phased out, rather than ended overnight.

Today CHIRLA again urged DACA recipients to renew, warning that Trump can still act to end the program if there is no legislation that lets them stay permanently.

"Today, people with DACA have a second chance; we have some breathing room now, but we re-commit today to nothing less than comprehensive immigration reform for everyone -- no carve-outs, no exceptions, no deals," said Angelica Salas, CHIRLA's executive director.


1:15 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the deputy director of policy for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with more information on the Supreme Court decision and a link to an online version.

This article was originally published at 7:28 a.m.