DACA decision: A reprieve for some, political defeat for others

By Tony Payan, Ph.D.
Françoise and Edward Djerejian Fellow for Mexico Studies
Center for the United States and Mexico


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that President Donald Trump’s attempt to cancel the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was not legal. The court did not rule that Trump had no authority to end the program. It did not rule that the program is or is not constitutional. It simply ruled that the administration’s efforts to shut down the program were illegal because it failed to follow the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires specific steps and justifications before such programs are closed.

Essentially, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration, through the Department of Homeland Security, was sloppy in the way it went about cancelling DACA. It did not do its homework.

The consequences of this ruling are two-fold. First, it means a reprieve for the 800,000 or so beneficiaries of this program — with 160,000 in Texas alone. These DACA card holders, who are proven assets for the U.S. and its economy, can stay for now and continue to enjoy the privileges of the program. It is important to note that the Supreme Court hinted at this decision when it decided to accept amici briefs outlining the potential damage to society and the U.S. should DACA beneficiaries lose their legal status and become immediately deportable. The court’s ruling does not mean the administration cannot try to cancel the program in the future, although there may not be enough time to do so before the November elections. Chief Justice John Roberts specifically wrote that any decision to end the program must come with due justification, given the ripple effects of cancellation on the United States. Devising such reasoned explanations will take time.

The second consequence is that the Trump administration has another political problem on its hands. The ruling is clearly a political defeat, as restricting immigration is one of the major features of this administration. The failure to scrupulously follow the Administrative Procedures Act may have repercussions through the November elections. This is also a political defeat for Texas state officials, such as Attorney General Ken Paxton, as Texas was one of the first states to challenge the DACA program.

The fate of DACA and its beneficiaries now pivots to the November elections. If Trump is reelected, he will likely try to cancel the program again —and the Supreme Court gave him ample room to do so. All he must do is follow the correct procedures and present appropriate justifications for ending DACA. If Joe Biden is elected president, it is likely that he will not seek to wind down the program and may even try to expand it to other groups. In addition, if the Democratic Party were to win  the White House and both houses of Congress, it is likely they will push immigration reform in a direction opposite of the Trump administration’s policies.

For the Supreme Court, the ruling on DACA is also quite significant. Along with its ruling on the rights of LGBTQ people earlier this week — also against the wishes of the Trump administration — the decision on DACA establishes the Roberts court as not simply a rubber stamp for the conservative agenda. It has instead shown that it can act independently of prevailing political winds.

At the end of the day, it is not possible to ignore the enormous strain that a different Supreme Court decision would have put on hundreds of thousands of people who are Americans on paper: they grew up in the United States, speak fluent English, work and pay taxes. The extensive damage caused by ending DACA would have rippled through our society. And that is exactly what Chief Justice Roberts emphasized in pushing back against the Trump administration.