Explainer: What the Supreme Court decision on DACA means for Dreamers

June 18, 2020

Today, the Supreme Court released a long-awaited decision regarding the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. In 2017, the Trump administration decided to end the Obama-era executive immigration program. The question before the court was whether the rollback process was done correctly.

The two issues the Supreme Court was asked to rule on in this case were:

  1. Whether the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) decision to wind down the DACA program is judicially reviewable; and
  2. whether DHS’s decision to wind down the DACA policy was lawful.

In a closely divided 5-4 decision, the justices ruled yes to the first question and no to the second. Writing for the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision to wind down DACA was judicially reviewable and that the administration’s rescission of the policy program was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the Administrative Procedures Act. As a result, for now, DACA stands. The 5-4 decision today included Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan in the majority, with Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Thomas, and Kavanaugh in the minority. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion of the court while Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Thomas wrote the main dissenting opinion of the court alongside the agreement of Justices Gorsuch and Alito. Additionally, Justice Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion in today’s case.

What is DACA?

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is an immigration policy the Obama Administration implemented by executive action in 2012. The policy gives temporary legal status to a special category of undocumented children in the U.S., commonly referred to as “Dreamers.”

Deferred action is a use of prosecutorial discretion in immigration cases to defer deportation for a certain period of time. Through this executive action, President Obama directed the Department of Homeland Security to consider requests for deferred action for certain people who came to the U.S. as children and met qualifications similar to the DREAM Act. This is why people who qualify for DACA are sometimes referred to as “Dreamers.”

The DREAM Act has been proposed many times in the past 20 years but has not passed Congress. The legislation would grant lawful permanent resident status on a conditional basis to young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as minors, and meet a variety of standards such as being of “good moral character,” committing to military service, and obtaining an education.

An earlier article from the ERLC explains DACA and the DREAM Act in more detail.

What is this case about?

Several cases, including Trump v. NAACP and Wolf v. Vidal, were consolidated under one case, Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, to settle the question of whether the Trump administration properly followed the Administrative Procedure Act when it began to phase out the DACA program.

In 2017, President Trump directed the Department of Homeland Security to begin to phase out the DACA policy. The current administration stated that because President Obama did not have specific statutory authority and because the program did not have an explicit deadline, the DACA program was an unconstitutional exercise of Executive Branch power.

Shortly after the rollback began, several lawsuits were filed claiming that the administration’s rescission was a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, a law that details executive decision making processes. The plaintiffs also claimed that rescinding the DACA policy was done with discriminatory motives and it deprived its recipients of constitutionally protected liberties without due process in violation of the 14th Amendment.

Why is this case significant?

These young men and women are undocumented by no fault of their own. They were brought to this country by their parents as minors. We do not hold minors accountable for legal decisions they are unable to make. These young men and women are our neighbors, fellow church members, classmates, and colleagues.

For those currently with legal status from DACA, it should be recognized that they took the government at its word to come forward and submit to this program. Since then, they have lawfully lived, worked, and paid taxes in the U.S. Not only should they not be held accountable  for breaking our immigration laws when they were minors, we should also recognize that these men and women stepped forward when our government gave them an option.

The men and women who participated in the DACA program have demonstrated they are good neighbors who contribute positively to our country. They have proven this by pursuing education, working and paying taxes, sacrificially serving in our military, and rejecting lives of crime.

Was the ERLC involved in this case?

While the ERLC did not file an amicus brief in this case, Southern Baptists have long advocated for immigration reforms, particularly to protect this special category of young men and women from unjust deportation.

Responding to today’s ruling, Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, said that while the court’s decision “might address an immediate question of administrative law, it does not, ultimately, protect our vulnerable neighbors.” Moore then challenged the country to take immediate action:

“Dreamers are not an abstraction. They are people created in the image of God, who were brought here as children by their parents. Their entire lives are at stake right now. There is no sending these people ‘back’—in many cases they have no memory at all of the land of their parents’ origin. Those who have lived as good neighbors and contributed so greatly to our country should be protected from the constant threat of having their lives upended. That will take action by the United States Congress. Most Americans agree on this question, which is quite a feat in times as divided as these. Congress should move immediately to protect our Dreamer neighbors.”

What happens to DACA recipients now?

For now, the DACA program continues and these young men and women are able to continue living and working lawfully in this country. But today’s decision provides only temporary relief and security because the Trump administration could still rescind the program as the question before the justices today was one of procedure. Ultimately, immigration law is the responsibility of Congress, and they should act to fix our broken system. The Southern Baptist Convention has urged Congress to pass immigration reform as evidenced by the 2006 Southern Baptist Resolution.

The ERLC believes the only sustainable way forward for DACA recipients is for Congress to legislate a path to legal permanent resident status and, eventually, citizenship. In October 2017, we released an Evangelical Statement of Principles on Dreamers with over 50 original signatories urging Congress to take action and develop a bipartisan solution. Messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention of 2018 also explicitly urged Congress to develop a “just and compassionate path to legal status” for undocumented immigrants already living in our country. Dreamers need a permanent solution that is not subject to the cycle of executives or the makeup of judicial benches.

ERLC interns Seth Billingsley, Sloan Collier, Jackson McNeece, and Julia Stamper contributed to this article.