The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to dismantle the program protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, a reprieve for nearly 650,000 recipients known as “dreamers.”
The 5 to 4 decision was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and joined by the court’s four liberals. It was the second, stunning defeat this week for the Trump administration, as the Supreme Court begins to unveil its decision in marquee cases.
It will likely elevate the issue of immigration in the presidential campaign, although public opinion polls have shown sympathy for those who were brought here as children and have lived their lives in this country. Congress repeatedly has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
President Trump responded to the decision by tweeting his displeasure and turning it into a call for his reelection, with a specific focus on gun-rights supporters: “These horrible & politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts into the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives. We need more Justices or we will lose our 2nd. Amendment & everything else. Vote Trump 2020!”
The administration has tried for more than two years to “wind down” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, announced by President Barack Obama in 2012 to protect from deportation qualified young immigrants. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions advised the new Trump administration to end it, saying it was illegal.
But, as lower courts had found, Roberts said the administration did not follow procedures required by law, and did not properly weigh how ending the program would affect those who had come to rely on its protections against deportation, and the ability to work legally.
“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” Roberts wrote.
He added: “We address only whether the [Department of Homeland Security] complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. 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. That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner.”
He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in the most important parts of the opinion.
The court’s four most conservative justices dissented. Justice Clarence Thomas said the program was illegal, and that the court should have recognized that rather than extending the legal fight.
“Today’s decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision,” Thomas wrote. “The court could have made clear that the solution respondents seek must come from the legislative branch.”
Instead, he said, the court provided a “stopgap” measure to protect DACA recipients, and “has given the green light for future political battles to be fought in this court rather than where they rightfully belong — the political branches.”
He was joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh dissented on other grounds. He said that even if the department had not provided adequate reasons initially for ending the program, it has since supplied them, and should not have to start over.
Immigration advocates were euphoric over the court’s actions.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), who led a coalition of 20 states and the District of Columbia in bringing the fight, said ending DACA “would have been cruel to the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who call America home, and it would have been bad for our nation’s health.”
He said Congress should “permanently fix our broken immigration system and secure a pathway to citizenship.”
Obama responded on Twitter as well: “Eight years ago this week, we protected young people who were raised as part of our American family from deportation. Today, I’m happy for them, their families, and all of us. We may look different and come from everywhere, but what makes us American are our shared ideals,”
And he put in a plug for presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, his vice president. He said future reform depends on electing Biden “and a Democratic Congress that does its job, protects DREAMers, and finally creates a system that’s truly worthy of this nation of immigrants once and for all.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), on the other side, said the decision “does not resolve the underlying issue that President Obama’s original executive order exceeded his constitutional authority.” He has filed a suit alleging that in federal court in Texas.
Nearly 800,000 people over the years have participated in the program, which provides a chance for enrollees to work legally in the United States as long as they follow the rules and have a clean record.
More than 90 percent of DACA recipients are employed and 45 percent are in school, according to one government study. Advocates recently told the Supreme Court that nearly 30,000 work in the health care industry, and their work was necessary to fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
While the program does not provide a direct path to citizenships, it provides a temporary status that shields them from deportation and allows them to work. The status lasts for two years and can be renewed.
The Trump administration said the DACA program, which Obama authorized through executive action, was unlawful. But even if it was not, Trump’s lawyers argued, the Department of Homeland Security has the right to terminate it.
Lower courts disagreed. They said the administration must provide other legitimate reasons for the action, because it has offered the protection to those undocumented immigrants who volunteered information about their status.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said the administration had not complied with legal requirements in trying to end the program.
“To be clear: we do not hold that DACA could not be rescinded as an exercise of Executive Branch discretion,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote. “We hold only that here, where the executive did not make a discretionary choice to end DACA — but rather acted based on an erroneous view of what the law required — the rescission was arbitrary and capricious under settled law.”
Trump has been ambivalent about the program, except for the view he can end it if he wants.
At times, he has said the program served a useful purpose. That includes saying he considers DACA recipients hard-working and sympathetic, many of them thriving in the only country they have ever known.
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!” he once tweeted.
He issued a mixed message when the case was argued last fall.
“Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels.’ Some are very tough, hardened criminals,” Trump said in a tweet. But then he added: “If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!”
The decision was at least the third major case in which the Supreme Court considered the president’s power in regards to immigration.
The justices ended their most recent term in June by stopping the administration’s plan to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Even census experts said such a question was likely to deter noncitizens from returning the forms and impede an accurate population count.
The court ended its 2018 term by approving the president’s travel ban on visitors from a handful of mostly Muslim countries.
The consolidated cases are Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, Trump v. NAACP and McAleenan v. Vidal.