WASHINGTON — Alma Oñate Muñoz was 8 years old when she and her family came to the United States from Mexico in search of better medical treatment for her sister, who had been diagnosed with a disease that threatened to leave her blind.
All those years spent in hospitals and translating doctors’ orders for her parents inspired Oñate to want to become a physician. Now at 25, she is a student at Harvard Medical School and on the cusp of fulfilling her dream because of a federal initiative that has dubbed her — not surprisingly — a Dreamer.
But a decision by President Trump to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program could force Oñate to leave the country before finishing her training unless a legal challenge that will be heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday is successful.
“You can imagine, you are wearing your white coat and are expected to go to clinic, and at the same time you do not know whether you will be able to complete your education or be able to utilize these skills you are learning,” she said.
Oñate is one of the young immigrants, brought into the United States illegally as children, whose futures are in limbo after Trump fulfilled a campaign promise and announced in 2017 that he would end DACA. That Obama-era initiative granted her and some 700,000 other immigrants the chance to work and go to school without the threat of deportation.
A wave of legal challenges to block Trump’s move will culminate Tuesday when justices hear oral arguments in a case that will decide DACA’s fate. A decision could come as late as June, elevating the issue of immigration in the middle of another contentious election. Already the program’s possible termination has reignited a movement by young immigrants that in the past two years has fueled nationwide protests and helped flip House seats to Democrats.
When Trump rescinded DACA in 2017, students and educators packed into Harvard Square to protest the move and more than 30 people were arrested. On Monday, about 300 immigrant rights advocates, including 40 students in their white medical coats, attended another rally at Harvard, organizers said, this time calling for a humane approach to immigration that protects all immigrants, not only young Dreamers.
“Even if the Supreme Court decides that DACA can end, I am looking at it hopeful that we will be able to leverage that to start a conversation about immigration reform in Congress,” Oñate said.
Dreamers pressured Obama to create DACA after decades of failed attempts by Congress to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Established in 2012, the initiative allowed people under 30 to qualify for renewable work and study benefits if they could show that they were younger than 16 when they arrived in the United States, had lived in the country for five years, and could pass strict background checks, among other requirements.
For young people such as Oñate, taking part in the program was a gamble. After years of hiding from federal immigration authorities, they would have to give the government their names, addresses, and folders filled with other personal and biometric records, information they feared could be used to target them and their families.
Still, the possibilities for a better future seemed to outweigh the fears. And at the time, many still believed a broader immigration overhaul was a possibility, as bipartisan legislation was introduced to boost border security and pave the way to citizenship for millions of people living in the country without legal residency. But that effort stalled, and by mid-2014, immigration reform was dead.
The failed attempt led Obama to sign another executive order to create the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, a program similar to DACA that would benefit recipients’ parents. But before it went into place, a coalition of 26 states led by Texas waged a successful legal challenge, arguing that Obama had overreached his authority.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which — with one vacancy — deadlocked, 4-4, on a decision, defaulting to a lower court ruling that blocked the program. That ruling would become the basis for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to end DAPA and later call for the termination of DACA.
Trump had promised to end DACA during a campaign in which he vilified Mexican immigrants. So the day after Trump won the 2016 election, Saul Jimenez took stock of his life and all the aspirations he would have to put on hold.
He had been a football star in middle school and high school, earning an athletic scholarship to Oklahoma Panhandle State University, where he majored in physiology. But without legal status upon graduation in 2010, he returned to Los Angeles to bus tables and work in warehouses alongside his father, packaging roses and toys sold wholesale to department stores.
DACA allowed him to become a tutor and later a special-education teacher, he said.
Now at 32, Jimenez has decided not to buy a house or pursue his master’s degree, knowing that if he loses his legal status he would lose his teaching job in Los Angeles.
“You’re a good teacher — why won’t you get to come to work?” Jimenez said his students ask him. “They don’t get the whole process. They don’t understand that I might not be here anymore.”
Jimenez is one of the original plaintiffs who challenged the decision to end DACA.
In cases now consolidated before the Supreme Court, their lawyers have argued that the Trump administration acted unconstitutionally because it 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.
As with other legal challenges to Trump’s immigration policies, the plaintiffs also argued that rescinding DACA violated recipients’ right to equal protection under the law, saying it “disproportionately affected Latinos and individuals of Mexican descent and was motivated by discriminatory animus.”
Federal judges in California, New York, and Washington, D.C., have sided with some of those arguments, partially blocking the Trump administration from ending the program and allowing a truncated version of DACA to continue: Current participants have been able to renew their permits, though no new immigrants have been allowed to apply.
In its latest filings, the administration insisted that the program is unlawful and that Trump had the authority to end it.
The case before the Supreme Court will center on narrower legal questions: Can courts intervene in the Trump administration’s decision to end the program? And if so, did the administration meet the legal standards in explaining its reasoning for doing so?
Conservative groups, gun rights organizations, and Republican-led states such as Texas have filed briefs in support of the government. More than 1,400 advocacy nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, and universities and colleges, including Harvard and MIT, have filed their own briefs backing the plaintiffs.
For many young immigrants, the case has been a reminder that DACA — even if the Supreme Court reinstates it — is not a permanent solution.
“It is just this little Band-Aid over a gaping wound of insecurity of status,” said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in California who has researched DACA. “It is only a temporary solution. If anything, it just perpetuates the limbo.”