A Texas federal judge on Friday struck down an Obama-era program protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, blocking the government from approving new requests but shielding current program recipients for now.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of the Southern District of Texas found the Department of Homeland Security did not have the authority to implement Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a 2012 program providing deportation relief and work permits to certain undocumented immigrants.
The judge noted that Congress has already outlined certain categories of immigrants who are eligible for work authorization, and DACA recipients are not among them. The executive branch does not have free rein to grant legal presence to other categories of immigrants, Hanen said.
“While the law certainly grants some discretionary authority to the agency, it does not extend to include the power to institute a program that gives deferred action and lawful presence, and in turn, work authorization and multiple other benefits to 1.5 million individuals who are in the country illegally,” Hanen wrote.
He also found that the Obama administration skirted procedural requirements when initially implementing the DACA program via agency memo, rather than soliciting public feedback through the formal regulatory process.
Hanen’s ruling bars DHS from approving new requests and sends the program back to the department to be redone. However, the judge acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of young immigrants currently depend on the program, and he agreed to pause the effect of his ruling for current DACA recipients.
The question of DACA’s legality will likely ultimately be decided at the Supreme Court.
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel for Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented a group of DACA recipients who defended the program in court, said there are “ample, legal bases for overturning Judge Hanen’s decision.”
The legal team plans to make a decision about whether to appeal in the next few days, he told reporters on a call following the decision.
The long-anticipated ruling stems from a 2018 legal challenge brought by the state of Texas and other Republican attorneys general.
The decision was not entirely unexpected, given a past ruling by Hanen, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, that ended the Obama administration’s attempt to expand DACA. Yet the decision delivers a severe blow to undocumented immigrants across the country who have batted back attacks against the program since it was implemented nearly a decade ago.
Andrea Anaya, an 18-year-old college student at Marymount University who applied for DACA in February but has yet to hear back, said the ruling “proves that temporary protections will always leave me and millions of others in a constant state of uncertainty and fear.”
“President Biden and Democrats in Congress, my life is not up for debate,” she said in a statement. “Now, it’s time you follow through on your promises to protect me and my loved ones and deliver citizenship for me and millions more this year.”
The Trump administration attempted to end the program for years, but the Supreme Court thwarted those efforts in a landmark ruling just over a year ago that noted how many people rely on DACA. However, the high court in its opinion stopped short of weighing in on the program’s core legality.
The Biden administration has said it is working to reissue DACA in a formal regulation that follows proper administration requirements. A government lawyer told Hanen’s court at a March hearing that it was expected to issue that rule in four to six months.
However, the department may face more of a challenge overcoming Hanen’s substantive issues with the program.
The ruling will likely increase pressure on Congress to step in and establish a path to permanent status for undocumented immigrants protected by DACA, including teenagers who may have been too young to apply before the Trump administration halted the program.
“It is more important than ever for Congress to act to protect Dreamers and provide a pathway to citizenship,” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said on Twitter.
Democrats are currently pushing to pass permanent protections for millions of undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers, through the budget reconcilation process, by which a bill can pass with a filibuster-proof majority. However, they would need to obtain approval from the Senate parliamentarian to include immigration provisions in a reconciliation bill, as well as full support from all Senate Democrats to shove it through.
“As we aggressively fight this misguided ruling in the courts, we must also act quickly in Congress,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “That begins by providing a roadmap to citizenship for essential workers, farmworkers, TPS recipients, and Dreamers as part of the upcoming reconciliation package.”
Bruna Sollod, a DACA recipient and activist with United We Dream, called on Democrats to ensure those citizenship provisions become law, adding that she hopes the court’s ruling “serves to light a fire under their butts.”
“We are feeling the pressure, and if we are feeling the pressure, the Democrats in Congress need to be feeling the pressure,” she said in an interview.