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Education groups rejoice as Supreme Court blocks Trump efforts to end DACA program, but warn decision is merely ‘first step’

Mark Keierleber | June 19, 2020

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Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) demonstrators stand outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., June 15, 2020. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Education groups cheered a Supreme Court opinion Thursday that blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to end a program that provides work authorization and deportation relief to some 650,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

The administration’s move to terminate the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program — in flux since 2017 — was “arbitrary and capricious,” the Court’s majority ruled.

For Viridiana Carrizales, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit ImmSchools, the news was a major shock. Her organization, which helps schools create safe classrooms for undocumented students and their families, had prepared for the worst.

“My heart is coming out of my chest right now,” she said in an interview, adding that her group never considered a victory in the nation’s top court, where conservative justices hold a majority. “Our community has always been on the defensive, always preparing for the attack, always defending ourselves. Honestly, this moment of victory is what our community needs right at this moment.”

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Court did not decide whether DACA or the decision to terminate it “are sound policies,” but whether the Department of Homeland Security under President Trump provided “a reasoned explanation” for its decision to end the program, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act. The department failed to follow administrative procedures and to adequately consider how ending DACA could affect its beneficiaries, often called “Dreamers,” the Court ruled.

“That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner,” Roberts wrote.

Though the ruling doesn’t prevent Trump from trying again to end the program, experts said it’s unclear how the administration will proceed during an election year with a program that enjoys bipartisan support. Nearly three-quarters of Americans — including 54 percent of Republicans — support granting permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this month.

DACA’s future became uncertain in 2017, when the Trump administration announced a plan to phase out the program, which then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions called an “open-ended circumvention of immigration laws.” Former President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012 through an executive order after Congress failed to pass similar legislation — a move Sessions called “an unconstitutional exercise of authority.”

The administration’s decision to terminate the program, which requires recipients to renew their applications every two years and does not provide a path to citizenship, ignited bitter debates on Capitol Hill. But lawmakers failed to pass legislation to save it as President Donald Trump demanded any compromise include billions of dollars in federal money for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Several federal judges ruled against the Trump administration, leaving much of the program intact as the issue weaved its way through the legal system. Decisions from lower courts allowed those enrolled in the program to renew their two-year permits but barred first-time applications.

University of California President Janet Napolitano, whose lawsuit against the Trump administration propelled the issue to the high court, proclaimed on Thursday that “justice and the rule of law won the day.” As homeland security secretary during the Obama administration, Napolitano helped create DACA. The Court’s opinion “is a victory for hundreds of thousands of young people who are making vital contributions to their families, schools, employers and the nation,” she said in a statement.

The Court ruled on narrow procedural grounds, but a separate opinion from Justice Sonia Sotomayor offered a blistering critique of Trump, arguing the president’s inflammatory comments about immigrants “create the strong perception” that his administration’s efforts to end DACA were “contaminated by impermissible discriminatory animus.” Last year, the Court rejected Trump’s stated reason for adding a question about citizenship to the census, with Roberts writing for the majority that the administration’s justification “appears to have been contrived.”

The Court’s DACA decision — released amid the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over policing — comes just months before voters decide whether to reelect Trump. Over the course of his presidency, Trump has been inconsistent in his views of DACA recipients. In a 2017 tweet, Trump questioned whether anybody wanted to “throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs,” including those who serve in the military. But he struck a different tone when the Court heard oral arguments in November, tweeting that recipients are “far from ‘angels,’” calling some “tough, hardened criminals.”

Reacting to Thursday’s news, Trump tweeted his frustration with the decision, asking, “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” In a landmark decision Monday, the Court ruled that federal civil rights law protects gay and transgender employees from workplace discrimination.

“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,” he tweeted.

Now, the Court has left Trump in a bind, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Though the ruling allows the administration to end DACA if it follows proper procedures, it has “always had that option,” she said. DACA recipients are “politically sympathetic,” she said, but Trump could come under intense pressure from his base to act. While acknowledging “it’s very hard to predict what this administration will do,” she said it’s likely that it will wait until after the election to try again, if Trump is reelected.

“I expect to see them drag their feet on the issue and probably try to distract from it over the next few months,” Pierce said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said in a statement that the ruling was “made possible by the courage and resilience” of DACA recipients. If elected, he said, “I will immediately work to make it permanent by sending a bill to Congress on day one of my administration.”

‘A great first step’

Among education leaders who cheered the ruling was John King, who served as education security under Obama and is now president and CEO of The Education Trust. Efforts to end DACA were “cruel, destructive and threatened to sow further seeds of division during a time when our nation needs unity and hope,” he said in a statement. But the Court’s opinion “strengthens our education system, our economy and the promise of the American Dream.”

But Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard University education professor, said the decision leaves thousands of high school students who have lacked protections over the last several years with uncertain futures. Since 2017, DACA recipients have been able to renew their status but newly eligible students were unable to apply. An estimated 98,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, according to the Migration Policy Institute. While the Court has sent the issue back to the Trump administration, it didn’t say whether the government must reopen the application process to new applicants. Concern for undocumented students who have been unable to apply for DACA in the last few years could motivate Congress to act, Gonzales said.

Writing in a dissent for the Courts’ four most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas said the majority opinion simply prolongs the legal fight over DACA’s fate and provides a “green light for future political battles to be fought in this Court rather than where they rightfully belong — the political branches.”

“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, he wrote, missed an opportunity to make clear that protections for Dreamers “must come from the legislative branch.”

For Carrizales of ImmSchools, the decision offered fuel to keep fighting for comprehensive immigration reform.

“This is definitely a great first step, but this is not a war that has been won,” she said. “We’re going to celebrate this victory, but we’ll continue to prepare and continue to advocate and organize to make sure that all of us are free.”

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