The Supreme Court on Thursday found that the Trump administration violated federal law when it rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who delivered the opinion of the Court, said the Department of Homeland Security's decision to end DACA was "arbitrary and capricious" under the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs how the federal government can set regulations.
"For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the Acting Secretary did violate the APA, and that the rescission must be vacated," Roberts said.
The DACA program, which former president Barack Obama created in 2012, protects undocumented people brought to the United States as children from deportation. There were 649,070 active DACA recipients as of Dec. 31, 2019, the most recent data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services. At the time, there were 25,980 people with pending DACA renewals.
The court's 5-4 decision does leave open the possibility that the Trump administration could rescind DACA — just that the process by which it attempted to do so in this case was unlawful.
Roberts wrote that the record showed the Department of Homeland Security failed to consider certain "conspicuous" issues when it decided to rescind DACA, including what to do about the young people who had already relied on the program.
He added that DHS's "failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner. The appropriate recourse is therefore to remand to DHS so that it may consider the problem anew."
Trump administration officials were quick to slam the decision made by the court, but did not lay out their next steps on the program.
“The constitutionality of this de facto amnesty program created by the Obama administration has been widely questioned since its inception,” said Joseph Edlow, the head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services. “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.”
Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said that the “American people deserve to have the Nation’s laws faithfully executed as written by their representatives in Congress — not based on the arbitrary decisions of a past Administration. This ruling usurps the clear authority of the Executive Branch to end unlawful programs.”
The court’s ruling is expected to play a large part in the presidential debate over the country’s future immigration policy.
On June 15, the eight-year anniversary of DACA, former vice president Joe Biden said the program “was a monumental victory for all those proud members of the community who pushed and pushed for these young people to have a chance at the American dream.”
He added that should he be elected president in November, he will “use the full extent of my executive authority to protect DREAMers and keep their families together,” while also sending a bill to Congress for a path to citizenship.
The decision also comes amid the coronavirus pandemic and affects about 27,000 DACA recipients working in the healthcare field. In a brief filed last year with the Supreme Court, the Association of American Medical Colleges said the US was not prepared to shoulder the loss of losing DACA recipients working in healthcare during a pandemic.
“To ensure health security, the country needs a robust health workforce,” the brief stated. “Rescinding DACA, however, would deprive the public of domestically educated, well-trained, and otherwise qualified health care professionals.”
In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by justices Alito and Gorsuch, said DACA was illegal because the program was created during the Obama administration without any statutory authorization and without going through the required rule making process.
“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.”
The majority’s ruling gives the green light for future political battles to be fought in the Supreme Court, rather than in the political branches “where they rightfully belong,” Thomas added.
Sen. Dick Durbin, who has been a longtime supporter of DREAMers obtaining legal status in the US, applauded the ruling while also pushing for a permanent legislative solution that would offer DACA recipients a path to citizenship.
"It means for these 700,000 DACA-protected individuals, they can continue to live, to work, and to study in America without fear of deportation for the moment,” Durbin said on the Senate floor. "We could enact that law and say to these young people, now you have your chance to stay and earn your path to citizenship in America. That's what we ought to be saying.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that while the ruling was undoubtedly a victory and the result of tireless work from advocates, it's only a temporary reprieve. She also called for legislation that would permanently protect DREAMers.
"The Supreme Court's decision did not provide Dreamers with the full measure of security they deserve," Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. "Dreamers, TPS holders, and our immigrant communities have been on the frontline during the pandemic – yet they continue to be treated with unprecedented hostility by the Trump administration. Immigrants are our colleagues, neighbors and friends. Their home is here.”
Attorneys for the Trump administration argued DACA was illegal because Obama overstepped his authority when he created the program.
In November, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, arguing on behalf of the US government, told the Supreme Court that DACA was a "temporary stopgap measure" that could be ended at any time.
Lawyers for DACA recipients said that while the Trump administration has the authority to end the program, it violated a law, the Administrative Procedure Act, when it decided to phase it out. The Administrative Procedure Act governs how the federal government can set regulations.
During oral arguments in 2019, Chief Justice Roberts indicated he believed that if DACA was rescinded, the government would not deport those who have received the protections. Immigration officials have said they have no plans to target DACA recipients en masse — however, they could deport those who have removal orders issued by an immigration judge.
In January, Matt Albence, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that if the Supreme Court were to rule against the program and individuals had deportation orders, the agency could “effectuate” those orders. Later, in March, Albence also told congressional officials that this group of immigrants would be “subject to removal” if they came to the agency’s attention. That same month, however, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf told senators during a hearing that the deportation of DACA recipients was not a priority.
On Wednesday, Republican Sen. John Cornyn said Congress was prepared to act depending on the upcoming ruling.
“We need to protect these young people, who through no fault of their own find themselves in a very, very difficult position,” said Cornyn, according to the Houston Chronicle. “We don’t hold children responsible for the acts of parents in America, and we shouldn’t start here.”
Such a deal appears unlikely during a fraught campaign year and after previous attempts at compromise failed to take shape.
Thursday's ruling means the Trump administration must resume the DACA program in its entirety, at least for now.
While the case was pending, the administration had only been processing renewal applications, and no new applications, based on early injunctions issued by federal courts in New York and California.
Roberts' opinion upheld an April 2018 order from a federal district judge in Washington, DC, that tossed out the Trump administration's rescission of DACA in its entirety and would fully reinstate the program, including the process for accepting new applications to participate. The DC ruling was different from the New York and California injunctions — it didn't limit its reach to renewal applications.