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U.S. Supreme Court Allows DACA to Stay (for Now)

In another stunning surprise from the U.S. Supreme Court, a five-vote majority of Justices ruled that President Donald Trump acted unlawfully during his attempt to end the DACA program that then President Barack Obama launched in 2012. The program offers deportation relief to select individuals who arrived in America undocumented as children.

However, this story remains far from over. Here’s what the Court actually decided on DACA, as well as what remains to be determined.

First, a quick refresher on what the Supreme Court was deliberating with this DACA case
Photo by Andrew Davey

Last November, we took a closer look at the legal arguments behind this historic DACA case at the Supreme Court. Here’s a key passage to better understand the process behind today’s ruling: 

There are probably three options the Court is considering. First, a majority of Justices may fully affirm lower court decisions that rejected Trump’s move to end DACA because he usurped the courts’ role to interpret federal law instead of citing policy reasons. Second, a majority of Justices may affirm Trump’s executive authority to rescind executive action(s) from a previous administration (in this case, Obama) and sidestep the larger question of how much authority any president has to enforce immigration laws without explicit Congressional approval. And third, a majority of Justices may outright rule that Obama violated separation of powers by usurping Congress’ role to make laws by establishing DACA, abolishing the program and constraining future presidents’ ability to use executive action to provide deportation relief.

It’s virtually guaranteed that Trump will be able to end DACA regardless of how the court rules, but at least the first and second options will preserve a future Democratic president’s legal ability to reinstate DACA and/or establish an expanded deportation relief program. But if all five Republican-appointed Justices choose the third option, then a President Joe Biden will be legally forbidden from reviving DACA, and he’ll instead be left with whatever the new Congress passes (if anything).

“Taken together, ‘the words of the President’ help to ‘create the strong perception’ that the recission decision was ‘contaminated by impermissible discriminatory animus.’” 
– Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her concurring opinion
U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor
Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Photo provided by the U.S. Supreme Court

Immigrant rights activists feared that a majority of Justices would have chosen the second or the third option, and they particularly feared the third option because it would have permanently constrained future Democratic presidents’ ability to offer deportation relief. To their surprise and a whole lot of federal judicial analysts’ surprise, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four Democratic-appointed Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) to affirm the first option.

So instead of ruling on the legality of Obama’s decision to begin DACA, these five Justices instead agreed that Trump and then Attorney General Jeff Sessions acted illegally by claiming they had to end DACA in September 2017 because they believed the program was illegal. Since it’s up to the courts to decide whether or not presidential executive actions are illegal, Trump and Sessions overstepped their bounds by unilaterally declaring that Obama overstepped his bounds in 2012.

However, this ruling isn’t entirely good news for DREAMers and immigrant rights activists. Plaintiffs in the three DACA suits that the Court consolidated (Trump v. NAACP, McAleenan v. Vidal, and Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California) also argued that Trump’s attempt to end DACA was motivated by animus, which would count as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment

But in today’s decision, only Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a concurring opinion affirming the animus/equal protection argument, while Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan rejected it. In her concurring opinion, Sotomayor wrote, “I would not so readily dismiss the allegation that an executive decision disproportionately harms the same racial group that the President branded as less desirable mere months earlier.” She continued, “Taken together, ‘the words of the President’ help to ‘create the strong perception’ that the recission decision was ‘contaminated by impermissible discriminatory animus.’”

“Trump’s decision to terminate DACA was always evil at its core. […] I’ll continue to fight to pass the Dream and Promise Act to secure their place in the only country they’ve ever known.” 
– Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas)

In the majority opinion led by Roberts, he wrote, We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies.” He continued, “We address only whether the [Department of Homeland Security] complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.” So what exactly does this mean for the DACA program, and for the people who’ve relied on DACA for some kind of legal protection, going forward?

Honestly, immigration lawyers across the nation are currently in the process of figuring that out. And honestly, the Trump administration probably still has wide latitude on how to administer DACA going forward, including whether to try to completely end it again.

While this ruling seemingly leaves the door open for a President Joe Biden to revive DACA if Trump tries to end it again then loses the election, today’s ruling also reiterates the harsh reality that DACA is essentially a temporary band-aid to a much larger problem of immigrants whose lives and livelihoods are continually threatened by whether or not the current White House occupant recognizes their humanity and their contributions to our community.

In a statement her office released after the Supreme Court issued its ruling, Rep. Dina Titus said, “This is a major victory for the 14,000 DREAMers in Nevada. I’ll continue to fight to pass the Dream and Promise Act to secure their place in the only country they have ever known.” Indeed, the Dream and Promise Act passed the House last year, but remains stalled in the Senate. Many more immigrant rights bills have been introduced in Congress, but they have yet to make it out of committee. Congress’ prior inaction led to the creation of DACA, and Congress’ future actions will determine whether the people at the heart of this story will finally have some kind of lasting happy ending.

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