Massachusetts and 15 other states sued the Trump administration Wednesday over its plans to abolish a policy that has given nearly 800,000 immigrants a reprieve from deportation, contending the move is discriminatory and hits Mexicans especially hard.
The complaint, filed in federal court in New York, seeks to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enacted in 2012 during the Obama administration. DACA allowed immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children — commonly known as “dreamers” — to live and work in the United States for two years without fear of deportation.
“Ending DACA will be devastating for dreamers and their families in Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a conference call with reporters. “It was a shameful act by our president.”
The lawsuit came as House Speaker Paul Ryan signaled that a legislative compromise may be possible to shield DACA recipients from deportation. He made it clear that any solution would have to be paired with border security measures.
“If we have legislation coming through here that is worked with and supported by the president, I’m very confident that our members will support that,” Ryan said Wednesday.
Congress has six months to act. The government plans to end the program on March 5, 2018. Immigrants whose DACA status expires before then have until Oct. 5 to seek a two-year extension. But the administration won’t consider new applications, and all DACA recipients whose protections expire after March 5 can’t apply for renewal, immigration lawyers said.
The lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration acted illegally in abolishing the program by violating the due process rights of those who received DACA status. It also cited disparaging comments Trump has made about Mexicans in asserting that ending DACA was discriminatory.
“The president’s numerous statements about his intentions towards Mexicans, who comprise the largest population of DACA grantees — target individuals for discriminatory treatment based on their national origin, without lawful justification,” the suit states.
About three-quarters of DACA grantees are originally from Mexico, according to the Pew Research Center.
Joining the lawsuit were New York, Illinois, and Iowa, among other states.
The complaint describes DACA recipients as important contributors to the Massachusetts economy and a vital part of the state’s academic institutions, including Harvard, which has more than 50 DACA students, Tufts, which has more than 25, and the University of Massachusetts.
Nearly 8,000 DACA recipients in Massachusetts contribute about $24 million annually in state and local taxes, the lawsuit stated. According to one estimate, ending DACA would cost the state $258 million in tax revenue — and nearly $925 million to the economy as a whole — over the next decade, the lawsuit stated.
“DACA works,” Healey said. “It’s good for our economy. It’s good for our communities.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that DACA was “an unconstitutional exercise of authority” when it was put into place by President Obama.
Some legal experts see the suit as a long shot to keep DACA intact but believe the court could intervene to soften the blow for recipients.
Mary Fan, professor at the University of Washington School of Law, said it would be difficult to persuade a court to stop the Trump administration from ending a program that was created through an executive order.
“Just as President Obama had the executive discretion to create DACA, President Trump has a strong basis to take it away,” she said.
The suit also seeks to protect the personal information that DACA recipients provided when they applied for protection. In that area, Fan said, the states have presented strong arguments to keep that sensitive data from immigration authorities charged with carrying out deportations.
“One hopes that gets very serious consideration from the courts,” she said.
As the legal battle over DACA begins to take shape, lawyers for immigrants who have benefited from the program said they are being flooded with calls from concerned clients.
Kari Hong, an assistant professor at Boston College Law School, said the attorneys general may have a shot at preserving DACA if they convince the court that the Trump administration violated federal law by not giving a reason for ending the program. That argument, she said, would be buoyed by Trump himself, who called on Congress to enact legislation to grant legal status to dreamers just hours after Sessions announced the policy would end.
But legal options for DACA recipients are still limited, she said, and lobbying Congress to change the law is the best bet for dreamers.
“I suspect that many will leave the country of their own accord or wait to be picked up,” Hong said. “It’s that dire.”
Immigration attorney Greg Romanovsky said most DACA recipients pursued the program because they had no other way of shielding themselves from deportation.
“Generally speaking, if they had options, they would have exercised them by now,” said Romanovsky, who leads the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “People don’t have DACA status because it’s a nice thing to have. They have it because they have nothing else going for them.”
David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., said enforcement of the shift will largely fall to employers, not federal immigration officials.
“They don’t have the resources to go about doing that on a mass basis,” he said. “It’s on employers to implement DACA repeal. Employers are going to have to police their workforce and purge their employee rolls of anyone who’s in DACA.”
Cato researchers have found that about 25 percent of DACA recipients will benefit from the six-month delay in ending the policy. Beginning March 5, 2018, more than 32,000 DACA recipients will lose their protection from deportation each month. All DACA protections are set to expire in March 2020, Bier said.