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Acting DHS Secretary Lacked Authority To Suspend DACA Program, Judge Rules

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A federal judge in New York has issued a ruling that could have a significant impact on the future of DACA recipients in this country. DACA, of course, is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shields young people from deportation.

Some context to this story - back in June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration's attempts to cancel DACA. A month later, though, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf issued a memo effectively suspending new applicants to the program. A judge on the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York has now ruled Wolf assumed his position unlawfully and, therefore, the memo is invalid. The DHS has responded, claiming the judge was playing the role of an activist.

We've been hearing from those directly impacted by the ruling.

LEEZIA DHALLA: It is a huge sigh of relief for so many people in this country who have lived here since childhood who, for such a long period of time, could not see into the future.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Leezia Dhalla. She's a former DACA recipient who works with FWD.us. It's an organization advocating for DACA recipients.

DHALLA: I am amazed that the Trump administration refused to put into practice what the Supreme Court had issued in June. To see that defiance, to see that the Trump administration has continued to sabotage even legislative attempts to pass any kind of bipartisan legislation, I mean, it's absolutely ridiculous.

MARTIN: We're going to bring another voice into this. Muneer Ahmad is a law professor at Yale Law School, and he supervises the Yale Workers (ph) & Immigrants (ph) Rights Advocacy Clinic, lead counsel in this case. A number of his own students led this work. Good morning. Thank you so much for being with us.

MUNEER AHMAD: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Can you start off by just explaining the legal argument you and your students presented here?

AHMAD: What we argued was that in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision in June, which had held that the Trump administration's first attempt to end the DACA program was unlawful and which the Supreme Court ruled in our favor on, when the administration then turned around and tried again to dismantle the program, we argued that that second attempt also was unlawful.

And the reason for it that the judge ruled upon on this past Saturday was that Chad Wolf, who purported to be the acting secretary, had not properly assumed his office. And as a result of that, any official action that he took with regard to the DACA program in trying to end the program for new applicants and in significantly curtailing it for those who currently have DACA was also unlawful.

MARTIN: So what does this mean going forward, though, because Chad Wolf has now been formally nominated, could be confirmed by the Senate in the lame-duck session. Does that mean that DACA is still vulnerable?

AHMAD: I think it's fair to say that there's more work to do, but the decision from the court in New York on Saturday was an important step toward the full restoration of DACA for over 1 million people. And as we heard in the introduction to the story, it's difficult to overstate the significance of DACA for the DACA recipients, for their family members and communities.

The case now sets us up to seek a full restoration of the program with the opportunity for new applicants to submit applications for the program and for those who currently have DACA to continue to renew their DACA at two-year intervals, rather than one-year intervals, and to travel abroad.

And so while we still have more work to do, this, I think, is an enormous victory for DACA recipients, is one that they themselves have brought about because immigrant youth have been leading a movement over the past many years. And it's because of them that we've been able to achieve a success like this in court.

MARTIN: And I understand that the ruling is helpful incrementally and in this moment. But I guess I'll push you again. I mean, President-elect Biden has said he could use executive action to protect DACA. So that's in the offing, but not until late January. I mean, you've got two more months. Is there a concern that because this ruling was not to the central merits of the case, that something could change, that the lives of DACA recipients could change yet again?

AHMAD: It's possible. And, look; we had an expectation that when the Supreme Court struck down the Trump administration's first assault on DACA that the administration would abide by the decision of the Supreme Court and reinstate the program as it had existed previously. And instead of doing that, the first official response from the Department of Homeland Security was to say that the Supreme Court decision had no basis in law. And then their next step was to try to dismantle it all over again.

So we certainly are prepared that in the waning days of this administration, they may yet try to gut the program again. But that's all the more reason for us to be in court in these weeks, notwithstanding the hope and the promise of the Biden administration to do right by DACA recipients when President Biden - President-elect Biden comes into office.

MARTIN: Muneer Ahmad with Yale Law School, thank you so much for your time and help explaining this. We appreciate it.

AHMAD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.