Today brings the latest attempt by Republicans to throw out the DACA program, which provides relief from deportation for hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people ― this time through the courts.
A ruling against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after a hearing in Houston will probably not bring an immediate end to DACA, thanks to conflicting orders in other courts that have kept it alive for so-called Dreamers. But it is a step in a fight over DACA that could end up in the Supreme Court.
Texas, joined by six other states, filed a lawsuit in May against the federal government to end DACA, arguing, six years after the program started, that it is unconstitutional and must be immediately halted to prevent harm due to its recipients’ residing in the U.S. and competing with citizens for jobs.
Texas is suing an administration that agrees with its position and isn’t fighting the suit. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have said DACA is unconstitutional but didn’t take action against the program until last September, after Texas and other states threatened to sue.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who blocked a broader deportation relief program before it began in 2015, will hear the case.
How DACA Got Here
President Barack Obama created the DACA program in 2012; it currently provides work permits and reprieve from deportation to nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Trump announced in September 2017 he would start phasing out the program in March of this year.
But DACA remains alive, thanks to three court orders that have blocked Trump’s order to end the program. Those rulings have forced the government to continue accepting requests to renew the applications of DACA recipients for an additional two years. In the latest ruling on Friday, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ordered the Trump administration to restore DACA in full and gave the government 20 days to appeal the decision before it would go into effect.
The Texas case could wind up contradicting those orders.
Even if Hanen sides with the plaintiffs and issues a preliminary injunction that prevents the government from renewing or issuing DACA permits, advocates say the ruling couldn’t override the decisions of other district court judges.
“Judge Hanen has no greater or lesser authority than any other district court judge in the nation,” said Thomas Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights organization that intervened in the case to argue against Texas. One or more appeals courts will have to sort out those contradictory orders, he added.
Although Hanen ruled against another deportation relief program in 2015, it’s far from certain that he will side with Texas on the DACA case, Saenz said. DACA is already in effect, whereas the other program wasn’t. That means the lawyers defending the program can point to more evidence of its benefits and question why, if DACA is so harmful to Texas, the state waited six years to challenge it.
What’s At Stake
Karla Pérez, a recent law school graduate who lives in Houston, is among the many DACA recipients following Wednesday’s hearing. She came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2 years old. She enrolled in DACA in November 2012. Without the program, she would lose work authorization and her driver’s license, plus the ability to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
She told reporters during a briefing last week that she joined the suit because she knew DACA enrollees could not count on the Trump administration to defend a program it tried to end.
“I refuse to be on the sidelines watching as my interests and the interests of other DACA recipients were inadequately defended by an attorney general who has called DACA unconstitutional,” Pérez said.
With various lawsuits still making their way through the courts, the legal fight over DACA is likely to stretch out for months, regardless of how Hanen rules. Many expect the case to end up at the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, members of Congress have made little progress toward enacting legislation that would protect young undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers’ attempts at finding a compromise have been complicated by immigration hard-liners in the Republican Party and Trump’s efforts to tie relief for Dreamers to restrictive immigration measures, including building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and restrictions on legal immigration.
Advocates are currently focused on making sure that all who are eligible to renew their DACA enrollment know they can still do so ― and that they can afford it. United We Dream, a network of Dreamer-led groups, and its partners have distributed more than $1.4 million to 3,000 people to renew their protections in the past 10 months, according to the organization.
“It’s all about renew, renew, renew,” said Sanaa Abrar, an advocacy director at United We Dream. “As soon as you can.”