WASHINGTON - The nation’s highest court is now deciding the fate of a program protecting undocumented immigrants brought here as children from deportation.
The U.S. Supreme Court Justices heard arguments about the legality of the Trump administration’s efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA).
Sharply at odds with liberal justices however, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority seemed ready on Tuesday to allow the Trump administration to abolish those protections.
"Immigrants are welcome here," crowds of protesters chanted outside the courthouse.
Created in 2012 by the Obama administration, DACA has protected those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children or came with families that overstayed visas. DACA recipients were able to obtain social security numbers, work permits and protections from deportation.
"I'm a daughter of immigrant parents so I came to support all of my family and friends who are DACA recipients,” activist Alejandra Yanez said.
The high court arguments did not involve any discussion of individual DACA recipients or Trump’s claims.
The justices will decide on two key issues: if the high court has the power to review the Trump administration’s move to wind down DACA and whether there was sufficient reasoning to end the program.
Abolishing DACA would "destroy lives," according to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one the court’s liberals who repeatedly suggested the administration has not adequately justified its decision to end the seven-year-old program. Nor has it taken sufficient account of the personal, economic and social disruption that might result, they said.
But there did not appear to be any support among the five conservatives for blocking the administration. The nine-member court’s decision is expected by June, at the height of the 2020 presidential campaign.
"I still live with the fear of deportation if anything were to happen,” DACA recipient Hector Rivera Suarez said.
Suarez, 22, now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. His family brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 8-years-old.
Suarez said DACA gave him access to a driver’s license, a job and school but now worries his life in the U.S. is at risk.
"I think the scariest part would be, if something were to happen to me personally, leaving my whole family behind because my whole family is here,” Suarez said.
The conservative justices seemed to defend the president’s authority to end DACA while the Democratic-appointed justices focused on the hundreds of thousands of people and organizations who rely on DACA.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh were among the justices who indicated on Tuesday that the administration has provided sufficient reason for doing away with the program.
President Donald Trump said on Twitter 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!” But Trump’s past promises to work with Democrats on a legislative solution for these immigrants have led nowhere.
The president also said in his tweet that many program participants, brought to the U.S. as children and now here illegally, are "far from 'angels,'" and he falsely claimed that "some are very tough, hardened criminals." The program bars anyone with a felony conviction from participating, and serious misdemeanors may also bar eligibility.
"It's a very scary thing to go through and I just hope that there's a permanent solution that comes out of all of this,” Suarez said.
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was a key part of his presidential campaign in 2016, and his administration has pointed to a court ruling striking down the expansion of DACA and creation of similar protections, known as DAPA, for undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens as reasons to bring the program to a halt.
After lower courts stepped in to keep the program alive, the administration produced a new explanation memo from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito raised questions on Tuesday about whether courts should even be reviewing the executive branch’s discretionary decisions.
Sotomayor made the only direct reference to Trump, saying he told DACA recipients “that they were safe under him and that he would find a way to keep them here. And so he hasn’t.”
She also complained that the administration’s rationale has shifted over time and has mainly relied on the view that DACA is illegal, leaving no choice but to end it.
In her most barbed comment, Sotomayor said the administration has failed to plainly say “that this is not about the law. This is about our choice to destroy lives.”
If the court agrees with the administration in the DACA case, Congress could follow up by voting to put the program on surer legal footing.
But, the absence of comprehensive immigration reform by Congress is what prompted Obama to create DACA in the first place, in 2012, giving people two-year renewable reprieves from the threat of deportation while also allowing them to work.
If the justices sustain the challenges, the administration could try again to end the program. A lawsuit in Texas claiming that DACA is illegal also would be likely to go forward.
© 2019 Cox Media Group.