In wake of Supreme Court DACA hearing, UC’s Janet Napolitano defends the policy she created under Obama

University of California President Janet Napolitano.
(Astrid Riecken / Getty Images)

University of California President Janet Napolitano on Tuesday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to continue protections from deportation for 700,000 young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and fell into illegal status through no fault of their own.

To allow the Trump administration to end the protections would shatter the lives of young people who are Americans in virtually all ways, Napolitano said in remarks after the high court heard oral arguments on whether the Trump administration had followed proper procedures to shut down the program.

“These are young people who have done all that has been asked of them,” she said in a teleconference Tuesday. “To remove their DACA protection in the way that the Trump administration has attempted to do and to make them subject to eviction from the only country they know as home is not only not legally required, but it is inconsistent with good immigration policy and inconsistent with our values as a country.”

She is particularly passionate about the issue because she created the program in 2012 as U.S. Homeland Security secretary in the Obama administration. She now presides over California’s premier public research university system, which educates about 4,000 undocumented students. About 1,700 of them are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the federal immigration policy that put a temporary hold on deportations and allowed work permits for young people who met certain residency, education and background requirements.


Key dates in the legal fight over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Napolitano and the UC Board of Regents filed one of the first lawsuits against the Trump administration after it announced in 2017 that it would rescind the DACA program. In an op-ed for The Times, Napolitano said it was unusual for a former Cabinet secretary to sue the agency she once led to block the elimination of a program she created. But she said she was motivated by the harm the program’s rescission would cause her students, who pay taxes, contribute to the economy, serve in the military and advance their education.

The UC lawsuit argued that Trump’s actions violated constitutional guarantees of due process and federal law against government actions that are arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion. U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions gave no reasonable explanation for ending the program, the complaint said, and the administration failed to follow rules requiring a public notice and comment period.

State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said Tuesday he was “intrigued” by how much time the justices spent on the question of whether courts had the right to review the administration’s actions. Becerra asserted California’s position that they did have such rights.

“In America, you learn that there’s a right way to do things and there’s a wrong way to do things,” he said. “And what came forward in this argument today is that the federal government did it the wrong way. The DACA program should continue. It was legal to begin with.”

Napolitano said UC would continue to stand by its DACA students even if the Trump administration won the case and began winding down the program. She said the 10-campus system would continue to offer them student services and free legal aid. She also pledged efforts to raise private funds to help the students, many of whom she said were low-income and would suffer financially if they lost the right to work.

She also took issue with Trump’s tweet Tuesday calling some DACA recipients “very tough, hardened criminals.” She noted that those who had been convicted of felonies or multiple misdemeanors were not eligible for the program. Of those approved for DACA from 2012 to February 2018, about 7.8% had arrest records, and those were mostly for offenses related to driving and immigration, according to federal statistics.

“The president’s tweet was just wrong,” she said. “The DACA recipients I’ve met are hardworking students, positive contributors to the university community and young people with hopes and dreams that at the university we want to support.”

Despite fears of possible federal retaliation, several UC students have spoken out about the importance of DACA to their lives.

Dellara Gorjian, a UCLA law student who was brought to California from Canada at age 5 and overstayed her tourist visa, said DACA motivated her to pursue college, a path she initially wrote off as pointless without legal status. She excelled at Irvine Valley College and Cal State Long Beach, winning academic accolades, debate championships and admission to several top law schools including UCLA, Georgetown and Northwestern. A musician and singer, Gorjian is interested in applying her legal skills to diversify the fields of entertainment and technology.

“DACA has really changed my life because it opened a world to me that I didn’t believe was there,” said Gorjian, who told her story in a sworn declaration submitted as part of the California case. “It gave me a chance to apply myself and give back to the one country I call home.”

Mitchell Santos Toledo, a UC Berkeley graduate now studying law at Harvard University, also filed a declaration in the case. He was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was nearly 2 and grew up amid drug dealers and violent gangs in South Los Angeles, yet he stayed focused on school despite despair about his illegal status.

After he received DACA in 2013, he secured medical insurance for the first time. With a work permit, he earned money to help out his family and pay for Berkeley and Harvard. He became confident enough in his future to take out law school loans.

Now, however, his dreams of a legal career are at risk.

“DACA gave and continues to give me a strong sense of purpose, has eased the daily fear and anxiety I once had over immigration status, and has made me more comfortable with my own identity,” he said in his declaration. “The rescission of DACA means suddenly returning to a state of anxiety and stress about my everyday life and what will come next for me and my family.”