For the past year, younger immigrants shielded from deportation by an Obama-era program known as DACA have seen their protection denied by the Trump administration, then restored by the courts.
But the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which has made the rounds of numerous courts across the country, is back before a judge. And that means the fate of people like 16-year-old Riverside County resident Ricardo Martinez could go back into limbo.
“It has felt like a roller coaster of emotions,” said Martinez, a Perris High junior who was 1 when he was brought illegally to the U.S. by his family. Last week, he applied for DACA.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court this summer rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to shut down the program, DACA still faces judicial scrutiny. On Tuesday, Dec. 22, a federal judge in Houston will consider another bid to invalidate DACA.
U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen will hear arguments in a lawsuit brought in 2018 by a coalition of states, led by Texas, challenging the constitutionality of DACA. They argue that President Obama exceeded his authority when he unilaterally created DACA eight years ago.
The program offers a two-year reprieve from deportation, a work permit and social security number to those who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16, were under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012, and are in school or had graduated and met other requirements. The authorization is renewable every two years.
While the program is often connected with youth, many of the 650,000 people it currently covers are now part of an older generation.
It’s estimated that 202,500 DACA recipients are pandemic frontline workers, including some 29,000 health care workers, according to the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization. California, which has the largest number of DACA-holders, (some 200,000,) also is home to the largest number of health care workers with DACA, an estimated 8,600.
In 2017, President Trump tried to end DACA. While at times softening his stance on the program and its recipients, the Trump administration ultimately argued that DACA is illegal and should be ended.
“We are a nation of laws,” Trump said on Sept. 5, 2017, when he called for an end to the DACA program. Trump’s move set off a series of lawsuits, including one from the University of California against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote ruled that Trump did not act lawfully in his effort to end the program. But that ruling left the window open for the Trump administration to try again.
Meanwhile, Chad Wolf, the acting Homeland Security secretary, said that the government would continue to not accept new applications while it studied its options. But more recently, a federal judge in New York ordered the administration to fully reinstate the program, which means it must continue to process applications for two-year renewals and accept new applications.
On Dec. 7, White House officials fully restored DACA.
Still, there’s the pending Texas case, which directly targets how DACA was even created, as opposed to Trump’s efforts to end it.
“The eyes of the nation now turn to the Texas federal court,” attorney Thomas A. Saenz told reporters during a press conference Monday, Dec. 14.
Saenz is the president and general counsel of the Los Angeles based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, known as MALDEF, which intervened in the case on behalf of 22 DACA recipients to defend the program challenged by Texas and eight other states.
Typically, the defendant – in this case the United States – would be doing the intervening party. “They are supposed to defend the challenged policy. But the administration has refused to defend DACA,” said Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation.
Both sides are asking Judge Hanen for judgment without a trial, Perales said. The MALDEF organization seeks to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the states have failed to show DACA has hurt them in any way. Texas and the other states, meanwhile, are arguing that DACA should be set aside because it’s not accompanied by federal regulations and is contrary to federal law, allowing people to stay in the United States who are not here legally.
Regardless of the outcome, no one is expecting – or has asked – Judge Hanen to cancel the DACA grants and the work permits that come with it for current recipients, Perales said.
But a ruling that DACA is unlawful could affect how future administrations act on DACA or similar programs, attorneys said.
President-elect Joe Biden, who was Obama’s vice-president when DACA was created, has pledged to support the program when he takes office in January.
The fate of DACA affects more than just the recipients, note immigrant rights advocates. It’s estimated that 245,000 U.S.-born children have at least one parent who is a DACA holder and 1.5 million families across the country include at least one person with DACA protection, said Maria Gabriela Pacheco of Dream.US, a group that provides scholarships to immigrant youth.
Pacheco said Monday that people with DACA “are part of our everyday life.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, there has been increased interest in the program, said Luz Gallegos, executive director of TODEC, Training Occupational Development Educating Communities Legal Center in the Inland Empire. But it’s been more difficult to meet with people who want to ask questions or apply. In the past, Gallegos’ group held training sessions that drew large crowds. Now, due to COVID-19, they can only meet with residents one-on-one. Earlier this month, the group held an online workshop: 346 people registered but more than 1,000 people have watched the video since.
One of those interested was Martinez, the teenager from Perris who submitted his application for DACA last week.
He wants a work permit so he can earn money after school and during the summers to help out his family.
“I can’t really do much without a permit,” he said.
Federal protection from deportation would also give him some peace of mind, he said. He wants to study criminology in college and is thinking of a career in law enforcement.
“I want to serve the country,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t born here, I feel like I was.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.