The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Trump administration cut too many corners when it moved to revoke the Obama-era DACA program, leaving in place protections for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant “Dreamers.”
The ruling is a severe blow to President Trump and his team, who had insisted both that the Obama administration acted illegally when it created the program, and that he was on firm legal footing in canceling it.
Leaving DACA in place means hundreds of thousands of young adult illegal immigrants can maintain protections, and more can apply — but it also leaves them in a legal limbo that Congress has been unable to solve. Thursday’s ruling instantly elevated their status to a major issue in the 2020 presidential campaign.
The court said the administration does have the power to revoke DACA. But a majority of justices said Mr. Trump’s team didn’t establish a sufficient legal and procedural basis for doing so, and that violated the Administrative Procedure Act.
The court ordered that matter to be sent back to Homeland Security to do a better job in explaining its decision.
“Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the controlling opinion. “That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner.”
Mr. Trump took the ruling personally.
“Do you get the impression the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” he said on Twitter, complaining about “horrible & politically charged decisions.” The DACA ruling came just days after his administration lost another case involving employment discrimination and sexual orientation or gender identity.
Dreamers knew they escaped with a narrow win.
“DACA survives. Dreamers can now breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate this great victory,” said Cesar Vargas, a Dreamer himself who became one of the country’s first illegal immigrants to practice law. “We always knew this was close and we were proven right with the 5-4 decision. Nevertheless, the Court stood with common sense and scolded the president for trying to destroy the lives of nearly 700,000 young people.”
The ruling produced a complicated web of opinions, including one from Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito and Neil Gorsuch, which said the program was “unlawful from the start” when President Barack Obama announced it eight years ago because his administration also cut too many corners.
That, Justice Thomas wrote, creates the ironic situation where a program created illegally cannot be revoked the same way.
“To state it plainly, the Trump administration rescinded DACA the same way that the Obama administration created it: unilaterally, and through a mere memorandum,” he wrote, calling Chief Justice Roberts’ reasoning “mystifying” in finding that what Mr. Obama did is acceptable and what Mr. Trump did is not.
Justice Thomas said Chief Justice Roberts and the court’s four Democratic appointees were trying to avoid a political controversy by delivering a legally suspect ruling — and in doing so, was inviting the courts to tread ever deeper into refereeing future battles involving powers of Congress and the Executive Branch.
Legal reasoning aside, the ruling’s immediate effect of protecting Dreamers is popular among most Americans.
Dreamers — those who came to the U.S. as juveniles, and often have no knowledge of their countries of citizenship — have long been seen as the most sympathetic figures in the immigration debate. Most were brought by parents with no say in the decision, and have grown up in U.S. communities.
Congress has repeatedly tried to come up with a permanent solution, but each time the bill has stalled. In 2010, a version cleared the House but was filibustered in the Senate. In 2013, a broad immigration overhaul cleared the Senate but never saw action in the House.
Mr. Obama had repeatedly said it was up to Congress and he didn’t have the power to protect them on his own — until the summer of 2012 when, facing reelection and worried about support among Hispanics, he reversed himself and decided he did have power after all.
Under his direction the Homeland Security Department issued a memo announcing the program, officially known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It began operation on August 15, 2012, and has provided protections for more than 800,000 people over the years.
DACA offers a two-year stay of deportation and work permits, which entitle the holder to a Social Security number and to some taxpayer benefits.
Many DACA recipients have gone on to gain more permanent legal status through other means, such as marriage or leaving the country and returning with advance parole.
Mr. Trump has sent mixed signals, praising Dreamers but complaining about DACA.
In September 2017, his Justice Department announced it had concluded DACA was illegal, and Homeland Security announced it would therefor phase out the program.
That decision has been snared in litigation ever since.
Chief Justice Roberts, in his ruling, said the 2017 legal reasoning wasn’t a strong enough basis to revoke a program that hundreds of thousands of people had come to rely on for their livelihoods. He said those illegal immigrants had relied on the Obama administration’s promises, and the government must grapple with that in trying to revoke the program.
The dissenting justices pointed out that from the start, the DACA program has told migrants it could be revoked at any time, so they questioned the reliance interest.
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