One president, Barack Obama, used his executive authority to protect 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will consider whether his successor, Donald Trump, followed the law when he rescinded it.
The case touches the lives of millions of Americans, yet revolves around dry procedural questions: Was Trump on solid legal footing in 2017 when his administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA)?
For the sake of the thousands of individuals protected by the program — and their schools, families, businesses, and communities — the court should invalidate Trump’s decision and uphold the legality of the program, enabling its recipients to stay in the United States without fear of deportation.
The Obama administration created the program in 2012 to help a particularly sympathetic subset of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States: children, and those who were brought to the United States as children. Although for many of them America is the only country they’ve known, they faced obstacles getting an education and a job, and the constant threat of deportation to an unfamiliar country. Obama’s program allowed beneficiaries to work legally and protected them from deportation as long as they didn’t commit serious crimes.
It’s been an astonishingly successful and popular initiative. In the last seven years, hundreds of thousands of “DACAmented” — the term used informally to refer to the youth who have received the benefit — have come out of the shadows to pursue higher education, earn better wages, and buy homes and cars. In other words, the program has provided a path toward economic mobility and social integration. A seven-year study released last week coauthored by Harvard researchers shows the profound impact on beneficiaries and their families, as well as the economy.
Obama’s legal justification for the program rested on the discretion that immigration authorities have always exercised over who they would prioritize for deportation. But conservative attorneys general said that giving a whole category of immigrants deferred action amounted to executive overreach. (Never mind that whole classes of immigrants had been granted deferred action previously.)
The Supreme Court never ruled on the cases challenging the program. But the Trump administration acted as if it had, concluding the program was illegal and canceling it.
That reasoning, in turn, invited the court challenges now seeking to restore the immigration protections. Supporters of the program — which include liberal states and hundreds of universities and businesses — say that the Trump administration can’t legally justify such a big change on the basis of such a tenuous legal theory. Although the administration later tried to add on other rationalizations for ending the protections, at the heart of its policy shift was the questionable contention that it had no choice.
By ruling that the Obama program was lawful in the first place, the justices could simultaneously overturn Trump’s decision to end it. Considering the lives at stake, they should. Immigration authorities have always had the discretion to allow some undocumented people to stay in the country, and there’s a reason for that. Immigrants who are thriving in America, and have no other home, belong here; both common sense and basic decency demand they be allowed to stay.