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In a major election-year ruling, Supreme Court blocks Trump’s move to end DACA — for now

DACA recipients and their supporters rallied outside the US Supreme Court.
DACA recipients and their supporters rallied outside the US Supreme Court.Drew Angerer/Getty

WASHINGTON — In a blow to President Trump, the Supreme Court on Thursday found administration officials unlawfully ended a federal initiative that provides temporary legal status for immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children — a decision that will protect, for now, more than 640,000 students and workers from deportation.

In a 74-page ruling written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the justices found the move to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which President Obama created more than eight years ago through an executive order, was “arbitrary and capricious.” The court allowed DACA to temporarily remain in place, finding that Department of Homeland Security officials did not properly explain their rationale for its termination when the department decided to unwind the initiative in September 2017.

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But the future of the program — and the fate of those in it — remains uncertain.

“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” Roberts wrote in the 5-4 decision. “We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.”

Roberts was joined by the court’s four more liberal members on the core of the decision. Four conservative justices largely dissented and would have let Trump end the program.

The ruling — one of the most significant cases of the term — nullifies the rollback of the program, potentially allowing new applicants to apply. The court’s decision punts action on DACA back to the White House and Congress in the middle of a historic presidential election unfolding in the midst of a pandemic and an unemployment crisis that have wracked immigrant communities. In the event Congress or Trump does not act, immigrant rights lawyers and civil rights groups will work to ensure administration officials allow the program to function as it was initially created, they said.

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On Thursday morning, Luz Chavez, 22, a DACA recipient and political organizer in Maryland, marched to the Supreme Court with about 40 other members of United We Dream, a youth-led network of progressive immigrant rights activists. They chanted “I am somebody and I deserve full equality, right here right now,” and unfurled an 80-yard banner calling for equality for Dreamers and pledging support for other movements targeted by the Trump administration: Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ rights, and climate change activists.

“I feel exhilarated,” Chavez said after the ruling. “We have been waiting for this for so long. At the end of the day, this is a victory that was brought by immigrant youth, and we are here to stand by them.”

Trump blasted the Supreme Court on Twitter after the DACA ruling and one Monday by the conservative-majority court that found a landmark civil rights law protects gay, lesbian, and transgender people from discrimination in employment. “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.

Trump did not comment directly on DACA, but retweeted a tweet from the conservative Daily Caller news organization of a quote from Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent on the ruling. “Today’s decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision,” the Thomas quote began.

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Trump, who paved his way to the White House in 2016 on an explicitly anti-Mexican platform, likening some immigrants to criminals and pledging to usher in a new era of isolationist policy, has sought to make immigration a centerpiece of his reelection campaign. His administration has all but curbed the path to asylum, limited temporary visas, and cut social services for immigrants without legal status.

Under fire for his lack of a cohesive federal response to the coronavirus outbreak, Trump has ramped up the crackdown with tighter border controls and drastic cuts to legal and illegal immigration. Administration officials have said measures have been taken solely in the interest of public health.

But termination of the DACA program could pose challenges for Trump as polls have consistently shown most Americans, Democrats and Republicans, support protections for hundreds of thousands of people who have lived in the United States for most of their lives. A Politico/Morning Consult survey released this week found that even a majority of Trump supporters favor shielding such immigrants from deportation. The earliest of those who fought for legal protections were dubbed “Dreamers.”

DACA allowed anyone under 30 to apply for temporary protection from deportation or legal action on their immigration cases if they had not committed a crime, had been younger than 16 when they were brought to the United States, and went to work or school, among other requirements.

More than 800,000 people were able to join the legal workforce at its peak. The numbers dropped after Trump officials announced a six-month phaseout of the program in 2017, giving Congress a window to salvage the program through legislation. But negotiations to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws ultimately sputtered among the moderate and far right factions of Republicans as Trump demanded additional funding to fulfill a campaign promise, the construction of a wall at the nation’s southern border.

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As of March there were about 643,560 active DACA participants, including roughly 5,480 in Massachusetts. With their futures thrust into limbo, thousands of young immigrants have fueled nationwide protests and helped flip House seats to Democrats in 2018.

Roughly 40,000 DACA recipients were expected to see their status expire this year, and more than half had yet to renew their applications, according to government numbers released in March. The pandemic further raised the stakes for the Supreme Court’s decision because many have become the sole breadwinners for their families, with parents denied federal stimulus checks and other virus relief because they are not legal residents.

In oral arguments in November, lawyers argued that the Trump administration failed to follow proper repeal procedures, relied on “arbitrary” and “capricious” reasoning, and reneged on a promise to Dreamers and their employers that the personal information they provided the government would not be used to deport them. Federal judges in California, New York, and Washington, D.C., sided with some of their arguments, permitting DACA recipients to renew their permits but denying any new applicants from participating in the program.

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Federal lawyers countered that DACA was unconstitutional, and that the Department of Homeland Security could change its own policy as an executive agency without judicial review, an ability Trump and conservative justices compared to top prosecutors being able to change their offices’ approach toward death penalty cases or drug diversion programs.

The Supreme Court majority resoundingly rejected the federal government’s argument that the courts could not review the decision to terminate the initiative, and found administration officials failed to consider necessary factors in ending the program, including the welfare of DACA recipients and their families, the blow to the US economy, and other alternate approaches that could have addressed concerns over the legality of the program.

The Trump administration could try to end DACA again with new rationale that takes into account those factors, legal analysts said.“Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but for today DACA recipients can rest easy,” said Jeffrey Davidson, a partner in the Covington & Burling law firm, which represented the University of California, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case.

Civil rights groups and immigrant rights advocates on Thursday rejoiced at the news. Some 165 colleges and universities, business groups, and more than 30 national hospital and health care associations had written briefs to the court in support of the program.

Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, head of the Latino Community Foundation, which works to increase the number of Hispanic leaders, said the Supreme Court decision confirmed what many already knew, that “our Dreamers are heroic individuals who make our country stronger.” “We welcome today’s news, but we will not rest until all of our immigrant families have peace of mind,” she said.

On the anniversary of DACA’s creation on Monday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called on Trump and Republicans to stop treating DACA recipients as a bargaining chip. If elected, Biden pledged to send Congress a bill “outlining a clear roadmap to citizenship” for some 11 million people living in the country without legal status.

“If Trump attempts to repeal DACA again — an unconscionable action, particularly during this unprecedented public health crisis — he will be responsible for upending the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people and bringing harm to families and communities all across the country,’” Biden said in a statement in response to the court’s ruling on Thursday. Other leading Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, praised the ruling.

But Biden has faced questions over his role in the huge spike in deportations under the Obama administration. He has since sought to make a clear distinction between the enforcement approach to immigration under Obama and the even more aggressive actions by the Trump administration.

A broader overhaul of the nation’s immigration system has failed for two decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Obama signed his executive orders to create DACA and another program for the parents of DACA recipients under pressure from young activists after bipartisan legislation last stalled in mid-2014. It would have boosted funding for border security and paved the way to citizenship for millions of people living in the country without legal residency.

On Thursday, immigrant rights activists such as Eliana Fernandez, a New York plaintiff in the case, praised a decision that they said had allowed them to study, work and buy homes without fear of immigration officials tearing them away from their homes and families.

“This win is a testament to our power, but we must keep the pressure on,” Fernandez said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of DACA recipients in Massachusetts. It is about 5,480.


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa