Judge Rules DACA Is Unlawful and Suspends Applications

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The judge said President Barack Obama exceeded his authority when he created the program, but for now people protected under it will retain the ability to stay and work.

Supporters and beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program rallied outside the White House last month.
Credit...Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA, via Shutterstock

Miriam Jordan

July 16, 2021Updated 6:00 p.m. ET

A federal judge in Texas on Friday ruled unlawful a program that has shielded hundreds of thousands of undocumented young adults from deportation, throwing into question yet again the fate of immigrants known as Dreamers.

The judge, Andrew S. Hanen of the United States District Court in Houston, said President Barack Obama exceeded his authority when he created the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, by executive order in 2012. But in a nuanced decision, the judge said he would not order that the program be immediately vacated.

In the judge’s ruling, he wrote that the Department of Homeland Security may continue to accept new applications and renewals for the program known as DACA but is temporarily prohibited from approving any of them.

Immigrants enrolled in the program, most of whom were brought to the United States as children, will for now retain the ability to stay and work in the country, though those protections could evaporate if the government is unable to rectify a series of legal shortcomings in the program’s authorization that were identified by the court.

Since its inception, DACA has enabled more than 800,000 immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States or fell into unlawful status when they were children to remain in the country and secure work authorization.

President Biden moved to strengthen the program on his first day in office, and in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, the idea of extending a path to citizenship to the young immigrants who enrolled in the program has attracted bipartisan public support.

But the ruling by Judge Hanen, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, has introduced a new complication for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been able to build families, buy homes and work at jobs in the United States without fear of deportation.

The ruling also represents a significant new challenge for Mr. Biden as he attempts to build support in Congress for his ambitious plan to legalize up to 10 million other immigrants who are in the country without authorization.

The Biden administration is expected to appeal the ruling, and unless Congress steps in with a legislative remedy, the ultimate legality of DACA is almost certain to be decided by the Supreme Court.

Lawyers from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund had urged the judge to refrain altogether from ruling, citing Mr. Biden’s directive to the Department of Homeland Security to create rules to fortify the program, and legislation introduced recently in Congress that would put Dreamers on a path to citizenship.

The state of Texas led the effort to terminate the program, along with Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina and West Virginia. Officials in those states had argued that the program was improperly adopted and left them with the burden of paying for education, health care and other benefits for immigrants who remained in the country under DACA’s protections.

Currently, about 650,000 immigrants are enrolled in the program. Among them are some 200,000 frontline workers who have performed essential jobs in health care, agriculture, food processing and education, among others, during the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald J. Trump announced a cancellation of the program in 2017 but several federal court rulings barred him from completely terminating it. Recipients were allowed to renew their DACA enrollment, a process that takes place every two years, even though new applications were not accepted.

With the embattled program’s future still up in the air, Texas and the other states in 2018 filed the current lawsuit calling for the program’s “immediate” rescission. Judge Hanen declined to issue a preliminary injunction, saying that the “egg had already been scrambled” and that “to try to put it back in the shell” did not serve the best interests of the country.

He warned, however, that Texas and the other states were likely to “prevail on the merits of their argument that DACA was unlawful.”

In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s decision to terminate the program, deeming its rescission in 2017 “arbitrary and capricious.” But the high court did not rule on whether the program had been legally adopted.

In December, the administration was ordered by a federal judge in New York to begin accepting applications for new DACA applicants, opening the door for thousands of people who had been shut out while such applications had been suspended.

But the case in Texas continued to wind its way through the court.

“We knew there was still a threat out there. So we said, please, please apply,” recalled Julie Mitchell, managing attorney at Caracen, a legal-aid organization in Los Angeles that has assisted thousands of students file applications.

Sarahi Magallanez, a psychology student in Los Angeles, is among thousands of young immigrants still waiting for approval of new applications.

“I am so grateful that I could finally apply, but I am still fearful,” said Ms. Magallanez, who said the program in any case provides only partial protection. “DACA is not safe, and we are at the mercy of whoever is in power,” she said.

Having broken immigration laws through no fault of their own when they arrived in the United States as children, there is broad support in the American public for allowing them to remain in the country. In a Pew survey conducted last year, about three-quarters of respondents, including majorities of Democrats and Republicans, favored extending Dreamers a pathway to permanent legal status.

When Mr. Obama rolled out the program, it was intended as a temporary measure in the absence of more comprehensive immigration legislation, which Congress has been unable to pass over the past two decades.

Mr. Biden has signaled his intent to protect the program, but only Congress can offer a legislative fix to allow Dreamers to live permanently, and legally, in the United States.

New proposals have already drawn stiff opposition from Republicans, who have resisted offering legal status to hundreds of thousands of immigrants while there are large numbers of unauthorized migrants crossing the southwestern border.

To qualify for DACA, applicants must have entered the United States before age 16, lived in the country continuously since June 2007, finished high school or enlisted in the military, and have a clean criminal record.

About 250,000 U.S.-born children have at least one parent who is enrolled in DACA, and about 1.5 million people in the United States live with a beneficiary of the program.

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