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Politics and Government

U.S. Supreme Court decision on DACA case puts fate of about 16,000 young Colorado immigrants in limbo

Colorado is among a group of states suing to prevent the program from being unwound

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The fate of some 16,000 young immigrants in Colorado who are shielded from deportation by an Obama-era program was again thrown into limbo on Friday after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will decide whether the protections can be unraveled by President Donald Trump.

The justices’ order sets up legal arguments for late fall or early winter, with a decision likely by June 2020 as Trump campaigns for reelection. The president in 2017 ordered an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, sparking protests and a congressional effort to salvage it.

That effort failed, but federal courts in California, New York, Virginia and Washington, D.C., have blocked him from ending it immediately. A federal judge in Texas has declared the program is illegal, but also refused to order its end.

Colorado is among the states that have sued to prevent the program from being undone. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on Friday said he was confident the coalition of his Democratic colleagues fighting to protect DACA will be successful. 

“People have made decisions based on a promise by the federal government,” the Democrat told reporters. “The federal government’s commitment can’t just be pulled out willy-nilly and destroy people’s lives. People won’t trust the federal government.” 

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Weiser said a political game is being played with DACA recipients and that’s why he thinks the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the program’s backers. He drew parallels to the court’s decision Thursday blocking the Trump administration from asking a citizenship question on the 2020 census. 

“There are two basic (legal) arguments: One is the administration has put forward reasons why it said that it’s going to pull the rug out of the dreamers,” Weiser said. “Those reasons, I believe, are contrived. Under our rule of law, you have to act with real integrity and say what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Second is the issue of due process. Once the federal government makes a promise that people rely on, people have a right to believe the federal government.”

The DACA program protects about 700,000 people, sometimes known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children or came with families that overstayed visas. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said that there were 15,890 DACA recipients in Colorado as of the end of July 2018.

The DACA protections seem certain to remain in effect at least until the high court issues its decision.

The administration had asked the court to take up and decide on the appeals, which have prevented DACA from going away, by the end of this month. The justices declined to do so and held on to the appeals for nearly five months with no action and no explanation. 

The court did nothing Friday to clear up the reasons for the long delay, although immigration experts have speculated that the court could have been waiting for other appellate rulings, legislation in Congress that would have put the program on a surer footing or additional administration action.

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“We are pleased the Supreme Court agreed that this issue needs resolution. We look forward to presenting our case before the court,” Justice Department spokesman Alexei Woltornist said.

Since entering the White House, Trump has intermittently expressed a willingness to create a pathway to citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who’ve been protected by DACA. But he’s coupled it with demands to tighten legal immigration and to build his long wall along the Mexican border — conditions that Democrats have largely rejected.

With the 2020 presidential and congressional election seasons underway, it seems unlikely that either party would be willing to compromise on immigration , a touchstone for both parties’ base voters. Three decades of Washington gridlock over the issue underscore how fraught it has been for lawmakers, and there’s little reason to think a deal is at hand.

Colorado’s Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who is facing a difficult reelection bid next year, on Friday said that DACA recipients deserve a spot in the U.S. and said Congress should act on immigration to give them a pathway to citizenship. 

“Congress should now, today, tomorrow get DACA passed,” he told reporters after an immigration roundtable event in Denver. “We should do that as soon as possible. We came six votes away last year from passing a DREAM Act. We can do it again.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, speaks to reporters after an immigration roundtable event in Denver on Friday, June 28, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But the reality is that is much easier said than done.

Democrats in the U.S. House passed legislation providing a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, earlier this month cast doubt on the idea that it would be heard in his chamber. The program has been a partisan hot potato in Congress ever since Trump announced he was unraveling the policy, becoming entangled in the broader, messy and highly charged debate over immigration reform.

On the campaign trail, nearly all of the two dozen Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to work with Congress to provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of people in the country illegally — beginning with people who have DACA status. On the other hand, Trump sees his hard-line immigration policies as a winning campaign issue that can energize his supporters.

The Obama administration created the DACA program in 2012 to provide work permits and protection from deportation to people who, in many cases, have no memory of any home other than the United States.

The Trump administration has said it moved to end the program under the threat of a lawsuit from Texas and other states that raised the prospect of a chaotic end to DACA.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions determined the program to be unlawful on the grounds that President Barack Obama did not have the authority to adopt it in the first place. Sessions cited a 2015 ruling by the federal appeals court in New Orleans that blocked a separate immigration policy implemented by Obama and the expansion of the DACA program.

Texas and other Republican-led states eventually did sue and won a partial victory in a federal court in Texas. Civil rights groups, advocates for immigrants and Democratic-led states, including Colorado, all have sued to prevent the end of the program.

The U.S. Supreme Court. (USDA photo by Ken Hammond)

In November, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the administration decision to end DACA was arbitrary and capricious.

The appeals court noted that the federal government has a long and well-established history of using its discretion not to enforce immigration law against certain categories of people.

While the federal government might be able to end DACA for policy reasons under its own discretion, it can’t do so based on Sessions’ faulty belief that the program exceeds federal authority, the court held.

Rising Sun