A federal judge in Washington, DC, ruled Tuesday night that the Trump administration's move to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was unlawful, finding that the government gave "meager legal reasoning" for its decision.
The ruling represents another loss for the administration on DACA, and would go further than injunctions issued by other courts to date. But it won't change the status quo just yet.
US District Judge John Bates vacated the US Department of Homeland Security's rescission of DACA and said the administration must process new applications as well as renewals, but he put his order on hold for 90 days to give the administration a chance to address the problems he identified in his decision.
The Trump administration announced in September that it was winding down the DACA program, which provided temporary protection against deportation and work authorization for more than 700,000 young, undocumented immigrants. Multiple lawsuits challenging that decision followed. Judges in New York and California have issued nationwide injunctions that partially revived the program, requiring the administration to process renewal applications after finding the rescission was likely unlawful. Neither order went so far as to order the government to start processing new applications, however.
A federal judge in Maryland ruled for the administration in March, finding that the administration's decision to wind down the program was "rational." But even that judge took swipes at Trump, calling the president's comments about immigrants "unfortunate, less than politically correct," and "misguided, inconsistent, and occasionally irrational."
The Justice Department is challenging the previous injunctions; in the California case, the US Supreme Court in February rejected the government's attempt to leapfrog the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, where that case is still being litigated. In the meantime, the Department of Homeland Security is processing renewal applications.
In a statement Tuesday, DOJ spokesperson Devin O'Malley said that the department "will continue to vigorously defend this position, and looks forward to vindicating its position in further litigation."
"Today’s order doesn’t change the Department of Justice’s position on the facts: DACA was implemented unilaterally after Congress declined to extend benefits to this same group of illegal aliens. As such, it was an unlawful circumvention of Congress, and was susceptible to the same legal challenges that effectively ended DAPA," O'Malley said, referring to another program that a federal court blocked from taking effect, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program. "The Department of Homeland Security therefore acted within its lawful authority in deciding to wind down DACA in an orderly manner."
In Tuesday's opinion, Bates found the administration's explanations for how it reached the conclusion that DACA was unlawful to be wanting. The Department of Homeland Security memo formally rescinding DACA and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recommendation letter did not cite specific federal statutes that conflicted with DACA, the judge wrote, nor did Sessions' letter explain exactly how he thought DACA violated the US Constitution. The judge identified legal issues at play with respect to DACA that were different than DAPA, and found that, as a result, the government couldn't rely on the earlier ruling against DAPA to justify ending DACA.
The judge wrote that the government's "failure to give an adequate explanation of its legal judgment was particularly egregious" in light of the hundreds of thousands of DACA beneficiaries who had structured their lives around the understanding that they could renew their benefits.
Bates sent the matter back to the Department of Homeland Security, putting his order on hold for 90 days "to allow the agency an opportunity to better explain its rescission decision." A status report is due July 27.
The NAACP, Princeton University, and Microsoft Corp. were among the groups that brought the cases in DC before Bates. Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber released a statement saying they were "delighted" with Bates' conclusions that the rescission was unlawful, but he noted that the ruling did not represent the end of the litigation.
"While the decision does not fully resolve the uncertainty facing DACA beneficiaries, it unequivocally rejects the rationale the government has offered for ending the program and makes clear that the DHS acted arbitrarily and capriciously," Eisgruber said.