As DACA Immigration Program Turns 10, Legal Challenges Persist

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The federal program for young immigrants known as ‘Dreamers’ turns 10 on Wednesday, facing legal challenges that could end it before Congress decides whether or not to provide them a path to U.S. citizenship.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created under the Obama administration when President Biden was vice president and then threatened with termination under the Trump administration, has focused on helping young people undocumented immigrants who had mostly grown up in the United States but were unable to get a driver’s license, pay for school or work legally.

The program offered approximately 825,000 people a life-changing chance if they met the eligibility criteria to apply for two-year renewable work permits, social security cards and driver’s licenses.

“This is the most successful immigration integration policy in decades,” said Roberto Gonzales, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied DACA recipients for years.

But the program has always had opponents, who over the years have raised concerns about its legality and illegal immigration to the United States.

The most imminent threat to DACA is a federal lawsuit filed by Republican officials in Texas and several other states who argue the Obama administration lacked the authority to create the program. The United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans has scheduled a hearing for July 6.

President Donald Trump has argued that President Barack Obama illegally exceeded his authority by creating DACA without passing a bill through Congress, and he tried and failed to phase out the program. The Supreme Court blocked Trump on a technicality, saying he failed to follow the rules to untie the program, but termination remains a possibility.

His then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced in 2017 that the Trump administration would try to end the program, said in an interview last week that Trump had tried to broker a deal that would have allowed dreamers to obtain permanent legal status. in exchange for more enforcement and less family-friendly migration — ideas that Democrats pushed back on because they could make it harder for immigrant families to stay together.

Sessions, also a former senator, said he believed a deal was still possible, if Democrats were willing to strengthen law enforcement, especially at the border.

The U.S. Border Patrol made 364,768 arrests nationwide in fiscal year 2012, the year DACA was established, according to federal records. In the first seven months of this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents made 1.2 million arrests, mostly at the US-Mexico border.

“The American people, they want a legal system where the laws are enforced,” Sessions said in a phone interview Friday. “You can fight over how many people come or what kind of skills they have, but they expect their government to create an immigration system with integrity.”

Obama created the program on the anniversary of Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas law that allowed school districts to expel undocumented children. But the high court had never said what should happen to these students after graduation from high school. After being unable to pass legislation through Congress, Obama said he decided to create DACA.

But U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas sided with the states in July 2021, ruling that the Obama administration had “unlawfully implemented” the program, and he barred the administration from ruling on any new applications, leaving 80,000 applicants for the first time in limbo, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Hanen, a Republican appointee, allowed existing DACA recipients to renew their work permits while the lawsuit is on appeal.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which defended the program in court and is involved in the appeal, said the 5th Circuit could rule at any time after the July hearing, and that the Supreme Court may ultimately decide the future of the program.

But he said a future president could cancel the program again.

“That’s the problem,” he said. “That’s why we need permanent legislative solutions.”

As a backup, Biden ordered the Department of Homeland Security to issue regulations that “preserve and strengthen” DACA, in addition to urging lawmakers to pass a citizenship bill that would cover all undocumented immigrants. . Congress has not passed a citizenship bill since 1986.

“We will continue to fight for the DACA program,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a phone interview Monday. “It changed the lives of deserving people for the better.”

Despite efforts to preserve the program, federal records show that the number of active participants has steadily declined, from more than 700,000 immigrants in 2017 to about 611,270 in March. Eligible applicants must have resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, arrived before age 16, and passed background checks.

Tens of thousands of people have left the program to become permanent residents or naturalized citizens, usually after marrying US citizens, according to a Congressional Research Service report citing 2019 figures, but even more have not renewed. Some said they couldn’t afford the $495 application fee, immigrant advocates said, while others were afraid to share their information with the US government for fear of deportation.

“What we’re hearing is that people just don’t trust him,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, deputy director of federal advocacy at United We Dream, an immigrant-led advocacy group and DACA recipient. from Brazil. “We’ve heard stories about people saying, ‘I don’t want the government to have my information. I’m going to move so they don’t have my address. I don’t want them to come for me and my family.

Ryan H. Bowman