U.S. Supreme Court rejects bid by Trump administration to end DACA immigrant program

The United States Supreme Court on Thursday rejected Donald Trump's effort to end legal protections for 650,000 young immigrants often referred to as Dreamers, a stunning rebuke to the U.S. president in the midst of his re-election campaign.

Questionable whether Congress would work on legislative solution in heated election year

DACA supporters surprised and elated by Supreme Court decision

3 years ago
Duration 1:15
DACA supporter Greisa Martinez Rosas praised the U.S. Supreme Court decision that will continue protections for 650,000 young undocumented immigrants. Sen. Chuck Schumer called the decision 'surprising.'

The United States Supreme Court on Thursday rejected Donald Trump's effort to end legal protections for 650,000 young immigrants often referred to as Dreamers, a stunning rebuke to the U.S. president in the midst of his re-election campaign.

The outcome seems certain to elevate the issue in Trump's campaign, given the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his first presidential run in 2016 and immigration restrictions his administration has imposed since then.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal wing of the court in a 5-4 decision. Roberts, citing the Administrative Procedure Act, called the administration's reasoning for ending the protections "arbitrary and capricious."

The justices rejected administration arguments that the eight-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) is illegal and that courts have no role to play in reviewing the decision to end it.

"We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies," Roberts wrote. "We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients."

The Department of Homeland Security can try again, he wrote.

Chief Justice John Roberts, seen in January in Washington, has cast the deciding vote against the Trump administration, as he did with last year's Supreme Court decision on a census case. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Trump, through the Department of Homeland Security, committed in September 2017 to ending the program, leading to the court challenges. 

He blasted the decision in a series of tweets on Thursday, calling it "horrible and politically charged."

"Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn't like me?"

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden welcomed the ruling and said, if elected, he would work to enshrine the ability of Dreamers to stay in the country they've grown up in.

"The Supreme Court's ruling today is a victory made possible by the courage and resilience of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who bravely stood up and refused to be ignored," he said.

Ending DACA one of Trump's 2016 campaign promises

Ending DACA was one of Trump's signature campaign promises in 2016, but the implications of doing so would have been complicated and potentially fraught in an election year. Enrolment in the program is heavily Hispanic and should Trump vow to end the program immediately or even in his next term, it could have mobilized voters he can ill afford to lose.

Trump said on Twitter the day the case was being heard at the Supreme Court that DACA recipients shouldn't despair if the justices side with him, pledging that "a deal will be made with the Dems" for them to stay. However, past administration promises to work with Democrats on a legislative solution for these immigrants have led nowhere.

Years of impasse in Congress over passing comprehensive immigration reform are what prompted then-president Barack Obama to create DACA by executive order in the first place, in 2012. The program gives people two-year renewable reprieves from the threat of deportation while also allowing them to work.

DACA recipients were elated by the ruling.

"We'll keep living our lives in the meantime," said Cesar Espinosa, a DACA recipient who leads the Houston immigration advocacy group FIEL. "We're going to continue to work, continue to advocate."

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students celebrate in front of the Supreme Court. About 700,000 applied for the DACA program, which staved off the threat of deportation. The court ruled the Trump administration was not justified in a 2017 attempt to end the program. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

Espinosa said he got little sleep overnight in anticipation of a possible decision Thursday. In the minutes since the decision was posted, he said his group has been "flooded with calls with Dreamers, happy, with that hope that they're going to at least be in this country for a while longer."

From the Senate floor, the Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said of the DACA decision, "I cried tears of joy."

"Wow," he went on, choking up. "These kids, these families, I feel for them, and I think all of America does."

Unilaterally created: Thomas

The court's four conservative justices dissented. Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissent joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, wrote that DACA was illegal from the moment it was created under the Obama administration.

"To state it plainly, the Trump administration rescinded DACA the same way that the Obama administration created it: unilaterally, and through a mere memorandum," wrote Thomas.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, like Gorsuch a Trump appointee to the court, wrote in a separate dissent he was satisfied that the administration acted appropriately in trying to end the program.

Some experts estimate that as many as one million were actually eligible for the program. Those eligible to apply were children of undocumented immigrants who arrived by 2007, and who were under the age of 16 when they arrived in the U.S. but not older than 31 as of June 2012. Those with serious criminal convictions were not eligible.

President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Wednesday in Washington. The administration ultimately rejected an attempt by Congress earlier in Trump's term that would have given Dreamers protections in exchange for border wall funding. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

Young immigrants, civil rights groups, universities and Democratic-led cities and states sued to block the administration. Companies such as Apple and Microsoft and some reliable Republican supporters including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were also opposed to ending the program.

Homeland Security has continued to process two-year DACA renewals so that hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients have protections stretching beyond the election and even into 2022.

Earlier this month, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois — who have tried over multiple administrations to get legislation passed to protect Dreamers — expressed skepticism Congress would take up the matter in an election year that has also included the 2020 challenges of coronavirus and policing reform.

"They can continue to live, to work and to study in America without fear of deportation, for the moment," Durbin said from the Senate floor Thursday, welcoming the decision.

Republican reaction more muted

While many Democrats in Congress quickly took to social media to herald the decision, the reaction from Republicans was more muted.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley said that the court "continues to invent and rewrite statutes at will."

"The court continues to fashion one set of review standards under the Administrative Procedure Act for Democrat administrations and another for Republicans," said Hawley.

There appeared to be bipartisan support for a deal on Dreamers in early 2018 in exchange for billions in funding for Trump's desired wall on the Mexican border, but Trump scuttled the deal.

The Supreme Court fight over DACA played out in a kind of legal slow motion. The administration first wanted the justices to hear and decide the case by June 2018. The justices declined.

The Justice Department then returned to the court later in 2018, but the justices did nothing for more than seven months before agreeing a year ago to hear arguments. Those took place in November and more than seven months elapsed before the court's decision.

With files from CBC News