Deciding the Fate of DACA

family protection
Hand holding a protection bubble for family members

A Supreme Court ruling that will decide the fate of DACA is likely to come late this spring. On November 12, the Supreme Court seemed in favor of the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has enabled almost 700,000 undocumented children and young adults to live and work in the U.S. without fearing deportation.

Over the course of an 80-minute exchange in the Supreme Court with some threatened immigrants in attendance, multiple conservative justices argued in favor of the Department of Homeland Security’s reasons for the decision to cease the DACA program. While he acknowledged the impact the decision would have on immigrants based on the “sympathetic facts” of the case, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that the justices also considered how ending the DACA would affect communities and employers.

Questioning the Legality of DACA

When it came to voting on the decision to end DACA, the court’s four liberal justices made the argument that the program’s fate should ride on the Trump administration’s controversial claim that DACA was illegal.

Chief Justice John Roberts’s vote appeared to be the most influential. Prior to the DACA hearing, Roberts voted in June with the four liberal justices to vote “no” on the administration’s desire to include a new citizenship question on the 2020 census. However, Roberts said that the attorney general may be right in declaring the DACA illegal following a connected U.S. Court of Appeals ruling for the 5th Circuit, which the Supreme Court upheld after a 4-4 vote three years earlier in 2016.

The Supreme Court won’t likely make a ruling until this spring as the 2020 presidential election campaign continues. However, even if the court decides to end DACA, a majority of recipients will still remain protected for the two-year period until January 2021, when either President Donald Trump or a new Democratic candidate is in office.

There’s no question that the Trump administration has the ability to rescind the program, but the purpose of the November hearing was to determine if the reasons for ending DACA were valid. While some conservatives had questions for U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco regarding the administration’s considerations for current DACA recipients and others the program affects, the liberal justices expressed a desire to rule against the administration.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was particularly vocal regarding the decision, stating that “this is not about the law. This is about our choice to destroy lives.”

Conflicting Administrations

The Obama administration started DACA in 2012 following faltering negotiations with Congress to create citizenship. President Barack Obama wanted to provide extending protections to over 4 million undocumented parents of legal permanent residents or citizens, but the federal courts decided against the motion.

With the establishment of the Trump administration, Texas threatened to sue regarding DACA if the program didn’t end. Following the removal of the program from Texas by the Department of Homeland Security, several states from New York to California filed lawsuits, followed by two federal judges’ decision to block the ending of the program nationally.

If individuals want to qualify for DACA every two years, the recipient must either be a student, high school graduate, or serve or have served with an honorable discharge from the military. Individuals convicted of significant misdemeanors, felonies, or more than three lesser crimes are don’t qualify for DACA.

On behalf of these recipients, civil rights organizations and immigration groups, along with groups representing educators, labor unions, big business, law enforcement, religious institutions, and national security groups, collectively submitted almost three dozen legal briefs.

President Trump also represented a post-facto justification for the ending of DACA by tweeting that many who are protected under DACA are hardened criminals, which is a reversal of his previously expressed sentiments regarding DREAMers, which were complimentary and supported protecting these recipients. 

Why the Case Matters

Apart from maintaining the benefits that DACA provides to DREAMers, there are several other reasons why this case is important.

  • It’s representative of a significant conflict between the legislative and executive branches of government.
  • It forwards the Trump administration’s continued dismantling of Obama administration-era policies.
  • It serves as the third significant Supreme Court battle around immigration in which the current administration has changed justifications for its decisions and motions, following the travel ban put in place against multiple majority-Muslim countries and the introduction of the new 2020 census question regarding immigration.
  • The Trump administration’s win in the court could culminate in continued negotiations with Congress to increase funding for the border wall as a favor for extending the DACA program. DACA would then become a major issue in the 2020 presidential election.

Ultimately, ending DACA could present certain hardships for younger immigrants who are otherwise eligible to live and work in the U.S.