Undocumented youths across the country rejoiced when the Supreme Court ruled last month that the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program nearly three years ago, was “arbitrary and capricious.”
It was a favorable ruling for the nearly 650,000 young immigrants who have received temporary relief from deportation through the DACA program, and hundreds of thousands more who are currently eligible or could become eligible to receive similar relief.
After the decision was announced in June, President Donald Trump tweeted that his administration would “have to start this process all over again,” implying that his administration would make another attempt to shut down the program.
Then, on July 10, he said in a Telemundo interview that he would sign an executive order within the next month that would include a merit-based path to citizenship for DACA recipients, though he gave no specifics.
Amidst the confusing signals, not everyone can fully celebrate the court decision — including those who are eligible to apply for DACA exemption but were barred from doing so while the issue has been litigated since Trump rescinded it nearly three years ago
Take, for example, Aimee, 17, who requested that her last name be withheld due to fear of deportation. Aimee’s mother had her only daughter’s documents organized in a bag, ready to apply for DACA as soon as Aimee turned 15 in October 2017. Her age was the final criteria she needed to meet to be eligible for the program, which provides temporary protection from deportation, a work permit and access to a Social Security card, among other benefits.
But a few weeks before her birthday, the Trump administration rescinded the DACA, effectively cutting her off from a program that she had prepared to apply for since it was first announced in 2012.
“That’s the part that was really hard — knowing that we were so close,” said Aimee, who lives in Los Angeles with her family and had just begun high school when the program was shut down. “It was a shock for us.”
And despite the Supreme Court decision, there is still no clear road ahead for her. That’s because the issue, as described in the ruling on June 18, “was not whether Department of Homeland Security may rescind DACA. All parties agree that it may. The dispute instead is primarily about the procedure the agency followed in doing so.”
As a result, the court did not rule on whether the Department of Homeland Security could rescind DACA or to prevent the administration from making another attempt to end the program. “We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Instead, he said, the administration should provide a more “reasoned explanation” for shutting down the program.
In fact, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the government office that processes DACA applications, claimed in a statement released the day after the decision that the “court opinion has no basis in law and merely delays the President’s lawful ability to end the illegal DACA amnesty program.”
The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are reviewing the court decision, according to a USCIS spokesperson.
Maria Blanco, executive director of the University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center, said that there are “only rumors that a new rescission (of the DACA program) is being drafted.”
Some legal advocates argue that the court decision returns the DACA program to its 2012 standing, when both new applications and renewals were processed. But U.S. immigration officials have yet to issue any guidance on how to proceed.
This puts Aimee in a bind, along with an estimated 66,000 others across the country who were shut out of the program because it was phased out before they turned 15, and are now old enough to apply, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and policy organization in Washington, D.C. It also estimates that an additional 125,000 undocumented immigrants in California could become eligible to apply when they turn 15 in the future or if they meet the education requirements of the program. In addition, there are many more undocumented immigrants who are now eligible to apply but did not do so for a range of reasons.
The Supreme Court decision comes at a critical transition for Aimee, who will be attending UCLA this fall where she plans to study international relations and public affairs. She says she will be going with or without her DACA certification, but DACA protection makes the process significantly easier.
“I was just afraid of not being able to achieve the goal my parents had when they came here,” she said, recounting how she traveled with her parents from Guatemala when she was four years old. “The whole reason we were here was for me to get my education.”
The current ordeal over DACA stems from a decision that the Trump administration made on Sept. 5, 2017, when it issued a memorandum phasing out the program. New applications would no longer be accepted as of that date. Immigrants who already had their DACA permit, which must be renewed every two years, were given one month to renew if their two-year renewal period ended before March of the following year.
After many court battles, USCIS began accepting renewals again. But people who had never been approved for DACA have been barred from applying.
Immigration advocates argue that the Supreme Court decision should allow first-time applicants to be considered for the program.
Leidy Leon, an 18-year-old from Watsonville on California’s Central Coast who just graduated from high school, is also waiting to submit her DACA application. She turned 15 in June 2017 and met with an attorney early that summer to begin her application process.
“She let us know we could continue with the process, but there was a chance this administration could just use my information to act on deporting my parents,” said Leon, echoing a sentiment often shared by other DACA-eligible youth. “In fear, we didn’t continue the process.”
She is now preparing to study political science and race relations at UC Merced this fall. Financial, academic and emotional support for undocumented students that the college provides was a deciding factor in the college she enrolled in, she said.
“Now that I’m 18, I want to be able to help my family out financially while I’m away for college,” said Leon, who came to the U.S. from Mexico two months before turning two years old. “The fear is definitely still present, without a doubt, but if I have the opportunity to apply [for DACA certification] I’ll want to take advantage.”
Several of her friends are in a similar position: beholden to whether USCIS will accept first-time applicants or not.
UC’s Blanco said there is no clarity on the issue year, and her center has hosted webinars to help clarify the situation. Among the students eligible to apply for the first time, she said, the main question they have is whether they are able to submit their application for DACA.
Trump has tweeted threats to make another attempt at shutting down the program, but his administration has not provided insight into how and when.
The process to try ending the program again will get complicated and will likely be adjudicated through the courts, according to Blanco.
“They (administration officials) have to come out with something substantially different in terms of the reasoning,” she said, adding that whether DACA is rescinded or not will ultimately depend on the reasons for the rescission that the Trump administration provides courts with.
In an attempt to understand how the immigration agency will respond to new applicants, advocacy organizations like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA, in Los Angeles have submitted one or two applications to test the waters for first-time applicants. The processing time, however, could take weeks or months. In the meantime, they and other legal service providers are telling those eligible to apply to have their documentation ready to submit at a moment’s notice.
Aimee’s mother is ready for when that day comes. She has kept her daughter’s documents in the same bag, all neatly organized since 2017, ready to submit them.
On the day of the Supreme Court decision, Aimee’s grandmother heard the news in Guatemala and immediately offered to pay for her application, regardless of the cost. “I just want to see it happen,” she told Aimee.
DACA has been instrumental in allowing students to earn higher wages, travel outside the country through advance parole and to receive driver’s licenses. But immigration advocates urge undocumented students to remember that with or without DACA they have options when it comes to higher education.
“Here in California, a lot of policies benefiting undocumented students are not tied to DACA,” said Anthony Ng, director of the Dream Resource Center at the UCLA Labor Center. Several state laws, such as AB 540 and the California Dream Act, grant students access to in-state tuition and other financial aid.
Still, Aimee knows the everyday fear of living undocumented. She remembers once sitting in a restaurant in the Bay Area with her family on their way home after a road trip. They ate their food in silence as news of immigration raids blared from a television. Knowing they were surrounded by Latinos, Aimee thought about the possibility that they could be raided that very moment. Even if she had DACA, other members in her family remain undocumented with no protection from deportation or no path toward citizenship.
“Speaking on behalf of the people — the younger generation — we want a more permanent solution,” she said. “There were generations of people fighting for this cause, and there will be generations of people after us fighting for this cause.”
* For more information on the status of DACA, and implications for students, check out this University of California website.