The Trump administration on Tuesday continued its push to roll back DACA — the program that protects young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — by refusing to accept new applicants.
A number of courts had given those immigrants hope. Last month, the Supreme Court blocked the administration's effort to end the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Then two weeks ago, a court in Maryland told the administration to start accepting new DACA applicants.
But the administration is refusing to do that, saying it will reject new applicants while launching a "comprehensive review" of DACA and whether to go forward with a new plan to end the program.
"I have concluded that the DACA policy, at a minimum, presents serious policy concerns that may warrant its full rescission," said Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf in a memo explaining the administration's decision.
According to that memo, the administration will continue to renew DACA protections for the roughly 640,000 immigrants who already have them — but only for one year, not for two years, as was previously the policy.
Immigrant advocates assailed the administration's move, saying it hurts DACA recipients and their families. The program protects recipients from deportation and allows them to work here legally.
"It is unconscionable for the Trump administration to circumvent the rulings of a federal court in order to once again thrust into uncertainty the families and communities who rely on DACA to stay together and for protection from unjust deportations," said Vanessa Esparza-Lopez, an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago.
Immigrant advocates say it's clear that the administration is preparing to rescind the popular program again but postponing that until after the November election.
"Trump's announcement today lays the groundwork to kill the DACA program and confirms what we have long said: DACA is on the ballot in November," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, which helped bring one of the cases the Supreme Court decided last month.
After that high court ruling, a federal judge in Maryland ordered the Trump administration to restore DACA to its status in September 2017, when the program was in full swing.
Still, the Trump administration continued to reject new applicants, despite growing calls to fully restart DACA from immigrants and their allies in Congress.
"It is entirely within the legal authority of the Department of Homeland Security to do that and to set a system in place," Cuccinelli said. "And the system does not allow new applicants."
The White House also defended the decision not to accept new DACA applications on a call with reporters.
When asked how that decision could be reconciled with the Maryland court ruling, a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the memo from Wolf is an "intervening action" that makes that decision moot.
When reporters asked whether the administration expects to face further litigation over the memo, the official said simply: "Yes, of course."
The Trump administration has long argued that DACA was created illegally by President Obama, but no court has ever reached a final conclusion on that question. A group of Republican state attorneys general, led by Ken Paxton of Texas, are making that same argument in a lawsuit still pending in federal court.
Immigration advocates are likely headed back to court as well. The group Make The Road New York, one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, is building a possible test case with a pair of brothers who filed first-time DACA applications this week. Once they are rejected, the plaintiffs are likely to go back to court to argue that the Trump administration is defying the Supreme Court's ruling.
Antonio Alarcon, a DACA recipient and activist with Make The Road New York, called today's move by the administration "an attack on me and my family."
"Our communities are paying close attention to this administration's attacks. And despite its attempt to distract and blame others we know where the blame lies," he said.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Today the Trump administration continued its push to roll back DACA, the program that protects young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Recently, a number of courts had given those immigrants hope. Last month the Supreme Court blocked the administration's effort to end the program. Then a court in Maryland told the administration to start accepting new DACA applicants. Well, now the administration is refusing to do that. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and has been following this story. He joins us now. Hey, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So what happened today exactly?
ROSE: Well, the Trump administration is officially acknowledging what we reported several weeks ago. It is rejecting new DACA applicants. This is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It protects immigrants who are brought to the country illegally as children from deportation and also allows them to work here legally. The administration also went even further today and said it would renew DACA protections for immigrants already in the program, about 640,000 of them at last count, but for just one year. Before, those renewals lasted for two years.
CHANG: OK, but wait. Haven't courts repeatedly sided with DACA and told the administration to restart the program?
ROSE: Yes. There have been lots of court rulings on this. And, of course, the case has gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court did not rule on the legality of DACA itself. Instead, last month the Supreme Court ruled that the administration went about ending the program in the wrong way. And many immigration lawyers figured that meant a return to the way that DACA worked before the administration tried to kill it.
But that is not what has happened. We found several cases where immigrants tried to sign up for DACA for the first time and got basically a form letter saying, sorry, but the program is not accepting new applicants. And then just two weeks ago a court in Maryland said explicitly that the administration had to go back in time to the way things were in September of 2017, when DACA was in full swing.
CHANG: So given all these court decisions, is what the White House doing legal?
ROSE: Well, reporters asked that question repeatedly on a call with the White House today. And a White House official pointed to a new memo issued today by the acting secretary of Homeland Security. And the administration argues that memo gives them the right to reject new applications while they conduct what they're calling a comprehensive review of DACA. Remember; they tried to end DACA with a memo, saying it was created illegally by the Obama administration back in 2012. But the Supreme Court said that wasn't good enough. And that begged another question about this new memo. And the White House official was asked on the call today, do you expect more litigation over this? - to which he simply said three words - yes, of course.
CHANG: OK, well, is there any word on that? Are immigration advocates planning to sue?
ROSE: For sure. And I should say opponents of DACA, including several Republican state attorneys general, are also suing. They're still in court trying to get DACA declared illegal. And even before today's announcement, one of the immigrant rights groups that won at the Supreme Court had been building a test case to try to fully restore DACA.
So a resolution on all of this is still nowhere in sight and certainly unlikely before the November election. And that's frustrating and infuriating for many of these young immigrants, often called DREAMers. They have been fighting this battle for years. They thought they won at the Supreme Court, and they accused the Trump administration of unlawfully refusing to comply with the courts. A group called United We Dream called this move today, quote, "an attack on undocumented people," unquote, who live under the constant threat of deportation.
CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.
ROSE: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOMBOX SONG, "MIDNIGHT ON THE RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.