Moises Serrano and his family have spent three decades in legal limbo over their immigration status, so he was hesitant to celebrate Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration over its decision to end a program that protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented people from deportation who were brought to the country as children.
“I think it’s important for people to understand the immigrant community has been terrorized by this administration for the past four years,” the 30-year-old Yadkin County resident said. “It was a surreal moment, but I’m still very cautious and very weary of celebrating anything because the immigrant community has been dealt so many blows.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 opinion Thursday finding that the Trump administration broke the law in 2017 when it rescinded the Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. He was joined by liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
It was the second, unanticipated defeat this week for the Trump administration from the high court. Justice Neil Gorsuch, a President Donald Trump appointee, broke from the conservative bloc Monday with a finding that existing federal laws prohibit employers from job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The court held Thursday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s decision to end the program was “arbitrary and capricious” and therefore in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” Roberts wrote. “‘The wisdom’ of those decisions ‘is none of our concern.’”
But the department, he said, “failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients. That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner.”
Serrano, 30, has been a DACA recipient since 2012 and an activist for immigrant rights since 2010. Before the program was implemented, immigrant community members were deported for driving without a license or a broken taillight; they couldn’t go to school or get good jobs, he said.
“For me personally, going to work, I would take a different route every day in order to not be stopped,” he said. “I would live in fear every day of the police.”
Serrano’s parents migrated from Mexico with him and his two sisters in 1991, when he was just 18 months old. Before DACA, he worked minimum wage, “under the table” jobs. It wasn’t until he received protection through the program that he could get a Social Security number, a driver’s license and could go to college.
His story is not unlike others in North Carolina. There are about 24,000 DACA recipients who live in North Carolina, including Carla Mena, who has worked as a bilingual clinical research coordinator at Duke University for six and a half years.
She was in a weekly meeting with her boss when she got the news about the Supreme Court, and she told her she’ll be able to keep working for a while longer.
“I think I’m still kind of in shock right now,” she said during a phone interview Thursday. “I tend to be cautiously optimistic, but I am happy to finally be able to be able to breathe a little, at least for now.”
DACA is a temporary fix for those recipients of the program, who don’t otherwise have a permanent path to U.S. citizenship. Last June, the U.S. House passed legislation that would safeguard the program and provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, also known as dreamers. The bill has not been taken up in the U.S. Senate.
Mena, 30, is from Peru and has been fighting for years to become a permanent resident. She struggled in April and May when she had to decide whether to pursue renewing her DACA status because of the uncertainty of the Supreme Court case.
“No human should have to go through the amount of anxiety and stress that we have gone through and will continue to go through until we find humane immigration reform,” she said.
The DACA program was created in 2012 to allow certain immigrants who arrived in the United States before age 16 to apply for temporary protection from deportation and work permits.
About 700,000 people have participated in the program, according to the Supreme Court. A 2017 survey of DACA recipients found that nearly all respondents were either employed or in school, according to the Center for American Progress.
Trump vowed on the campaign trail to “end” the program. His administration made good on his promise in 2017, but lower courts blocked the decision from taking effect.
The administration could try to end the program again, the high court noted in its opinion. If it does, it will have to do so in a way that complies with federal law governing such decisions.
Trump responded to the opinion Thursday by ranting on Twitter that the “horrible and politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts into the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or conservatives.”
He said Second Amendment rights, religious liberty, the right to life and secure borders were in jeopardy and urged Americans to vote for him in the upcoming election. He also tweeted that he would be releasing a new list of conservative Supreme Court justice nominees to appoint if he gets a second term.
The ruling drew cheers from liberal lawmakers and advocates across the country.
“By rejecting the Trump administration’s illegal attempt to end DACA, the Supreme Court provided a critical measure of relief to DACA recipients and their families at a time when they — like all Americans — are experiencing significant fear and uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, said in a statement.
Immigrant rights’ groups, including the ACLU of North Carolina, Adelante Coalition, CIMA, Comunidad Colectiva, El Pueblo, LatinxEd, Out Turn, Poder NC Action, Student Action with Farmworkers and Undocumented Filmmakers Collective also applaud today’s decision from the high court.
“Thanks to the undocumented youth who put their bodies on the line to demand protection from deportation from then-President Obama we have DACA,” said said Stefania Arteaga, Statewide Immigrants’ Rights Organizer with the ACLU of North Carolina. “This is a win for all the DACA recipients who put their lives on the line for the safety of many.
“Today, we celebrate but know that the fight is not over. For nearly three years, DACA recipients have lived in legal limbo and now we’re calling on lawmakers to permanently protect all undocumented immigrants and for North Carolina to do more.”
Similarly, NextGen North Carolina celebrated the DACA decision, but noted that dreamers shouldn’t have to wait with bated breath for such an outcome.
“Today’s close ruling is yet another reason why we are making sure [Sen.] Thom Tillis never gets to confirm another Supreme Court justice,” said spokesperson Rachel Weber. “Tillis fancies himself a protector of immigrant rights, but we’re talking about a guy whose campaign literally sold Santa hats that said ‘Build the wall.’ In November, we will vote for a Senator who prioritizes protections for dreamers, not a rubber-stamp for Donald Trump’s racist immigration agenda.”
Justice Clarence Thomas called the ruling “mystifying” in a dissenting opinion. “Today’s decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision,” he wrote.
He wrote that the Department of Homeland Security created DACA without any statutory authorization and without going through the requisite rulemaking process, which means the program was unlawful from its inception.
“The majority does not even attempt to explain why a court has the authority to scrutinize an agency’s policy reasons for rescinding an unlawful program under the arbitrary and capricious microscope,” Thomas added in the dissent. “The decision to countermand an unlawful agency action is clearly reasonable. So long as the agency’s determination of illegality is sound, our review should be at an end.”
Serrano is still concerned for his future, in part because of language like what is in Thomas’s dissent. He said the immigration system was made to be unjust and racist, and it continues to operate successfully on that premise.
His story is the subject of the award-winning film, Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America, and he said Thursday he will continue to fight through the arts for the rights of his peers to be in the U.S.
“I have been trying really hard to change the culture and the rhetoric through the arts; that’s what is missing,” he said. “We are a part of this country, and we are a part of the fabric of this country and as much as this administration tries to, we will not be erased.”
Allison Stevens from the States Newsroom DC Bureau contributed to this report.