WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Tuesday seemed inclined to allow the Trump administration to end a federal program that provides work and study permits to some 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
As hundreds of supporters of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program rallied outside the court, justices were divided along ideological lines as they heard oral arguments in a case challenging President Trump’s move to cancel the Obama-era federal initiative and put the lives of those immigrants — known as Dreamers — in limbo.
The five conservative justices appeared to side with the government’s assertion that the program is unlawful and questioned the main argument of DACA supporters that administration officials had failed to lawfully explain their rationale for ending it.
But liberal justices suggested that the Trump administration was hiding behind a legal argument and refusing to take responsibility for ending a program that has benefited hundreds of thousands of people.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that Trump told people eligible for DACA benefits that “they were safe under him and that he would find a way to keep them here.”
“And so he hasn’t and, instead, he’s done this,” she said. “And . . . I think that is something to be considered before you rescind a policy.” She said the administration’s reasoning to end the program — and “destroy lives” — needed to be articulated clearly.
The court’s ruling on DACA’s legality, one of the most significant cases of its term, could define the boundaries of presidential power in dictating immigration policy. And if the court allows the Trump administration to end the program, it could lead ultimately to the deportation of Dreamers who have lived in the United States for most of their lives.
A decision could come as late as June, landing in the middle of a presidential race in which Trump again has sought to make immigration a centerpiece of his campaign. He has been warring with Democratic presidential candidates over starkly different views about immigrants, here legally and illegally, and what they contribute to the country.
Blasting some DACA recipients as criminals — though people with criminal backgrounds aren’t allowed to apply to the program — Trump tweeted Tuesday that if the Supreme Court upheld the program’s termination, “a deal would be made with Dems for them to stay!”
Even though Democrats now have the House majority, a deal to restore DACA is unlikely after years of failed legislative attempts by both parties at overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.
Obama officials established DACA in June 2012. The initiative allowed anyone under 30 to apply for renewable permits that allowed them to work and study here if they had not committed a crime, had been younger than 16 when were brought to the country, and met other requirements.
Two years later, President Barack Obama sought to expand the program and create Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, a similar initiative for more than 3.5 million parents of children with US citizenship or legal residency. But a court in Texas blocked his executive actions in a case that former attorney general Jeff Sessions later would use to call both programs unconstitutional.
Presidents have undone each other’s executive actions before. But legal experts said Trump officials weakened their case to rescind DACA by relying on Sessions’ opinion, which three lower courts — in New York, California, and Washington, D.C. — found to be based on “a flawed premise.”
Before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco argued that the Department of Homeland Security could change its own policy as an executive agency without a review by the courts, an ability he and conservative justices likened to an attorney general being able to change the approach toward death penalty cases or drug diversion programs.
And even if the decision can undergo judicial review, Francisco argued, the Trump administration had provided sound reasoning.
“DACA was always meant to be a temporary stop-gap measure that could be rescinded at any time,” he said. “So I don’t think anybody could have reasonably assumed that DACA was going to remain in effect in perpetuity.”
But attorney Theodore Olson and California Solicitor General Michael Mongan, representing the plaintiffs, countered that the administration “utterly failed” in providing accurate and legal reasoning for its decision, instead basing the decision to end the program on an “unsupported” and “erroneous” legal conclusion by Sessions.
“The government’s termination of DACA triggered abrupt, tangible, adverse consequences and substantial disruptions in the lives of 700,000 individuals, their families, employers, communities, and Armed Forces,” Olson said.
The DACA case is seen as a test for Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative who has voted with liberal justices in other closely watched cases. Roberts gave little indication Tuesday of his conclusions about the case, though he seemed to share concerns about the legality of the program.
Outside the court, Dreamers and their supporters chanted, “Home is Here,” as they rallied in chilly temperatures and pouring rain to try to keep DACA in place. Some marched on foot from New York as part of the “Home is Here” immigrant rights campaign. DACA recipients filled the courtroom — and one of them, Luis Cortes, 31, was part of the legal team defending the program.
After the arguments, hundreds gathered near the steps, drumming on paint buckets and holding colorful signs with monarch butterflies, known for their migration patterns and now a rallying symbol for immigration rights activists.
“No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here,” the crowd chanted.
Camilla Bortolleto, 31, and Karina Ruiz, 35, said before they headed into hear the arguments that they were deeply moved by volunteers who camped overnight to save seats inside the courtroom for DACA recipients like them.
“I want to see these judges who have the power to impact my life,” said Ruiz, a mother of three and activist with the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, bundled in a black, puffy jacket and a plastic poncho, a coffee cup clasped in orange gloves. “I want them to see we are real humans, real people.”