The University of California sued the Trump administration Friday for rescinding protections for immigrant students without legal status, saying the action unconstitutionally violates their rights on "nothing more than unreasoned executive whim."
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, is the first legal effort by a university to block the Trump administration's decision this week to end protection from deportation for nearly 800,000 young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors. Known as "Dreamers," the young people were given a reprieve from deportation and access to work permits if they arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and stayed in school and out of trouble.
The 10-campus UC system has about 4,000 students — along with teachers, researchers and healthcare providers — who are in the country illegally.
President Trump's decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, sparked an uproar, with rallies and protests across the nation and objections from lawmakers across the political spectrum.
UC President Janet Napolitano, who in 2012 was an architect of the program as U.S. Homeland Security secretary, said the decision to sue the federal government was not taken lightly.
In an op-ed for The Times posted Friday, 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 will cause her students, who pay taxes, contribute to the economy, serve in the military and advance their education. "In all ways except one, they are American," she wrote.
The UC lawsuit argues 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.
"As a result of the defendants' actions, the Dreamers face expulsion from the only country that they call home, based on nothing more than unreasoned executive whim," the complaint reads.
Andrew R. Arthur, a former New York immigration judge who is now a resident fellow at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, predicted the lawsuit would fail. He said Sessions explained that the Trump administration decided to end the program because officials concluded they could not prevail in lawsuits that several Republican state attorneys general threatened if the program was not terminated.
He also said the Trump administration's action was not abrupt because it offered a six-month grace period and the ability for some recipients to renew their permits until March 2020. Under the phaseout, those whose DACA permits expire before next March may apply by Oct. 5 for a two-year renewal, though no new DACA applications will be accepted.
"I don't believe this is a legally viable lawsuit," Arthur said. "Deferred action is an act of administrative grace by the executive branch. Individuals who applied for DACA did so knowing that grace could be withdrawn at any time."
He also said the UC system was on "shaky ground" legally as to whether it has standing to sue, because courts often have not allowed parties to sue on behalf of others. But the lawsuit said that not just the students but the university itself would suffer from the loss of DACA recipients' academic and employment contributions after investing in their tuition, housing and financial aid. Napolitano, in a teleconference Friday, said officials have not yet calculated the size of that investment.
On Wednesday, a coalition of Democratic and nonpartisan attorneys general from 15 states and Washington filed suit in New York federal court to block the program's cancellation.
California, which did not join the multi-state lawsuit, plans to file its own legal challenge next week. The state has more than 240,000 DACA recipients, the largest number in the nation.
State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra welcomed UC's lawsuit. "We all agree we have to win this fight to protect the fully lawful DACA program, and sometimes you have to fight battles on all fronts to maximize success," he told The Times in a statement.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley of the 114-campus California Community Colleges were among those who expressed support for UC's leadership. California State University is evaluating legal action and planning to meet with federal lawmakers next week, spokeswoman Toni Molle said.
The lawsuit was filed with the pro bono support of the law firm Covington & Burling LLP.
Napolitano has pledged that UC campuses will continue to support immigrant students without legal status with free legal services, a loan program for financial aid and directives to campus police not to contact, detain, question or arrest individuals solely based on their immigration status.
"They really represent the spirit of the American dream," Napolitano said Friday of the students. "We hope to restore that dream."
Times staff writers Rosanna Xia in Los Angeles and Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento contributed to this report.