Supreme Court rules for ‘Dreamers,’ rejects Trump’s repeal of immigration program


In a striking rebuke to President Trump, the Supreme Court on Thursday rejected his plan to repeal the popular Obama-era order that protected so-called Dreamers, the approximately 700,000 young immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children.

Led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court called the decision to cancel the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, arbitrary and not justified. The program allows these young people to register with the government and, if they have a clean criminal record, to obtain a work permit and be assured they will not be deported. At least 27,000 DACA participants are employed as healthcare workers.

Trump had been confident that the high court, with its majority of Republican appointees, would rule in his favor and say the chief executive had the power to “unwind” the policy.

But the chief justice joined with the four liberals on the court to rule that Trump and his administration had failed to give an explanation for why it was repealing a popular and widely lauded program.


The justices did not conclude that Trump’s repeal violated the Constitution or exceeded his authority under immigration law. Instead, the majority blocked the action on the grounds that Trump’s team had failed to explain its rationale as required by the Administrative Procedure Act. Adopted in the 1940s in response to the New Deal and the massive growth of government, the act requires officials to explain and justify abrupt changes in regulatory rules.

The decision made for an unusually bad week for Trump and conservatives.

On Monday, the court rejected the Trump administration’s position that a 1964 civil rights law should not protect LGBTQ workers from discrimination, and separately it sided with California in a legal battle over so-called sanctuary laws protecting immigrants. The justices also turned down a series of appeals urging the court to expand gun rights.

Until this week, conservatives had been confident that they had a lock on the high court with Trump’s two court appointees — Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh. But Gorsuch wrote Monday’s 6-3 opinion upholding civil rights for LGBTQ employees. And Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, has now joined the liberals to knock down one of Trump’s signature immigration initiatives.

“Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” Trump tweeted Thursday.


Trump dismissed the ruling as “highly political” and “seemingly not based on the law,” and used it as an opportunity to campaign for his reelection. “These horrible & 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 it underscored the need to appoint more conservatives to the Supreme Court and repeated his promise to only appoint future justices from a list of candidates hand-picked and vetted by conservative groups.

The fight over DACA already promised to play big in the 2020 election, with presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign emphasizing his commitment to providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers as it seeks to mobilize Latino voters in key battleground states such as Arizona.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling today is a victory made possible by the courage and resilience of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who bravely stood up and refused to be ignored,” Biden said in a statement. “As president, I will immediately work to make it permanent by sending a bill to Congress on day one of my administration.”

Democratic leaders said Thursday that they believe the court’s decision — and Trump’s reaction to it — will motivate Latino voters even more.

“If Donald Trump wins in November, he will end DACA,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, in a call with reporters. “For every voter who cares about Dreamers, please understand this: The future of Dreamers depends 100% on the outcome of the November election …. We can’t lift our foot off the gas, and we won’t.”

The DACA case, whose outcome affects the lives and careers of hundreds of thousands of young people, is the most far-reaching immigration dispute to reach the high court during Trump’s tenure.

The decision, in Department of Homeland Security vs. Regents of the University of California, is similar to last year’s ruling that blocked Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

On Thursday, Roberts spoke for the same 5-4 majority, and his opinion follows similar reasoning. The chief justice said Trump’s Homeland Security Department did not put forth a valid reason for revoking the DACA program, just as he said Trump’s Commerce Department did not provide a valid reason for adding the citizenship question.

“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” Roberts wrote. “We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. Here the agency 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.”

Legal experts said the administration has only itself to blame for the loss. “It’s not that Chief Justice Roberts is a closet progressive. He’s not. It’s that the Trump administration is really bad at administrative law,” Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, tweeted.

Usually, the chief justice and the court’s conservatives argue for deferring to the federal government on regulatory matters, particularly in an area like immigration. Two years ago, for example, the chief justice wrote a 5-4 opinion deferring to Trump and upholding his travel ban on foreign visitors and immigrants.

But such deference requires the justices to have confidence in the decision-making process within the government. Thursday’s decision is the latest sign that Roberts, who spent much of January presiding over Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, may be growing increasingly skeptical about decisions that come out of the Trump administration.

The court ordered that the DACA case be remanded so that the Homeland Security Department could better explain its actions. Meanwhile, DACA will remain in effect. While the administration could now devise a new explanation, there is little or no chance a second attempt to end DACA would win approval from the courts this year.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined in the decision. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Gorsuch and Kavanaugh voted to uphold Trump’s plan.

The decision is likely to prove popular with the American public. Opinion polls over the past year have found that three-fourths of Americans believe the Dreamers should be granted a permanent status and allowed to become citizens. Both Republicans and Democrats have voiced support for them.

The ruling also likely closes the door on any action in Congress this year to resolve the issue. Trump had hoped that, if he won, he would have been able to use the decision as leverage against Democrats by offering to assist the Dreamers in exchange for new restrictions on legal immigration. Democrats had already rejected such a deal. Now they’re likely to wait until next year, when they hope to have increased their numbers in Congress after the November election.

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra celebrated the outcome. “Ending DACA would have been cruel to the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who call America home, and it would have been bad for our nation’s health. Today we prevailed on behalf of every Dreamer who has worked hard to help build our country — our neighbors, teachers, doctors and first responders.”

President Obama extended relief to these young people in 2012 because he said they had done nothing wrong. They had been brought to this country by their parents as children, had grown up here and started families and careers. It made no sense, he said, for the government to target them for deportation.

Although Trump lauded the Dreamers during his 2016 campaign, his administration took a hard line on immigration from the start and announced in 2017 the DACA program would be ended. It was not clear why the program was being ended, other than that then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions believed it was illegal.

The announcement triggered a long legal battle in the courts that began in California.

University of California President Janet Napolitano, who launched the DACA program when she was Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security, filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in federal court in San Francisco along with Becerra. They argued that the administration had not put forth a valid reason for terminating the popular program.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup agreed in January 2018 and handed down a nationwide order that put the repeal on hold. The Trump administration had acted based on “a flawed legal premise,” he said, adding that “DACA was and remains a valid legal exercise” by immigration officials.

The administration appealed, but in November 2018, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court upheld the judge’s order in a 3-0 decision. The Supreme Court refused to intervene for a time but last year agreed to hear the government’s appeal, along with parallel cases from New York and Washington, D.C.

Times staff writer Evan Halper in Washington contributed to this report.