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For ‘dreamers,’ elation and relief after Supreme Court decision extending DACA

DACA recipient Louis Zuluaga leads celebrants outside the Supreme Court on Thursday.
DACA recipient Louis Zuluaga leads celebrants outside the Supreme Court on Thursday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Fernanda Herrera Spieler frantically checked her computer Thursday morning to see whether the Supreme Court would change her life.

A program created in 2012 by President Barack Obama had protected undocumented students like her from deportation, allowing them to get driver’s licenses, work legally and afford college. President Trump attempted to end it years later, and Herrera Spieler feared that the conservative-leaning court would allow him to do so.

Then her phone exploded with congratulatory text messages.

The high court ruled 5 to 4 to block Trump from rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects Herrera Spieler and more than 640,000 other immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation. All were safe, for now.

"Dreamers" gathered outside the Supreme Court on Thursday, June 18, to celebrate the Supreme Court's decision to uphold DACA. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It’s crazy. It’s crazy,” said Herrera Spieler, a 25-year-old law student who came to the United States from Mexico at age 2 and grew up in Alabama. “I called my mom and she couldn’t believe it, either.”

The long-awaited decision on the program, known as DACA, brought surprise and a deep sigh of relief for “dreamers” and their families. For now, the decision lifted the precarious uncertainty that many immigrant families have lived with since Trump first attempted to end the program in 2017.

Outside the Supreme Court, DACA recipients wearing masks because of the coronavirus pandemic cheered the ruling. Despite social distancing recommendations, some could not help but hug.

‘Dreamers’ fight coronavirus on the front lines

"Dreamers" across the country celebrated the Supreme Court ruling on June 18 that blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end the DACA program. (Video: Alonso Parra/The Washington Post)

“We’ve been preparing for this moment for so long,” said José Alonso Muñoz, a spokesman for United We Dream, the nation’s largest organization founded by immigrant youths. Muñoz is also a DACA recipient, and his protections are set to expire in 2022.

Muñoz is one of the immigrants who answered Obama’s invitation in 2012 to “come out of the shadows” and register with the U.S. government. His parents brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was 3 months old and raised him in Minneapolis. He turns 30 on Friday and is the only member of his family who remains undocumented.

Before DACA, he attended college part time and struggled to finish. After registering with the program he was able to get a better-paying job and earn a degree from the University of Minnesota.

Jesus Contreras, 26, was coming off a 24-hour shift as an EMT in Houston when he heard the news that DACA was saved for now. He had spent almost all night — except for a 20-minute nap — responding to calls to aid residents with emergencies, including some patients with the coronavirus.

Contreras, who came to the United States from Mexico at age 6, said he is “just mentally exhausted from being pushed to understand that any given second, one decision could mean the end of the program and our life here in the United States.”

The ruling does not entirely lift the uncertainty that began when their parents brought them across the border illegally or into the country on visas they overstayed. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the administration did not follow the legal procedures required by law to end the program.

“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” Roberts wrote.

Trump blasted the decision on Twitter, calling it “horrible,” and suggested that he might try to again end the program, writing that “now we have to start this process all over again.”

Acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf also criticized the ruling, saying the program was “created out of thin air and implemented illegally.”

“The American people deserve to have the Nation’s laws faithfully executed as written by their representatives in Congress — not based on the arbitrary decisions of a past Administration,” he said.

Wolf did not make clear how the ruling would affect the program. The Department of Homeland Security currently renews applications only from immigrants already in the program.

Advocates for immigrants said they believe the Supreme Court ruling means that the program should reopen to high school students and anyone else who has been blocked from applying for the first time. To qualify, immigrants must have arrived in the United States before they turned 16, pass background checks and meet other criteria.

“Anyone who qualifies as a dreamer under DACA should be allowed to be in the program,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), who led the lawsuit against the Trump administration.

Joseph Edlow, deputy director for policy at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes deferred-action applications, hinted in a statement that the administration could attempt to end the program again, saying the ruling “merely delays the President’s lawful ability to end the illegal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty program.”

From 2017: Trump administration announces end of DACA

Recent polling indicates that the DACA program has broad support, with even a majority of Republicans in favor of extending it.

Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said the ruling is a mixed bag for Trump. While it may have allowed the president to “dodge a political bullet” since some Republicans support the dreamers, others in the GOP expected Trump to keep his campaign promise to end the program.

“The Supreme Court has said the administration clearly has the power to end DACA — they just need to do so legally,” Pierce said. “The president will be pulled between those in his base who want to see him follow through on his promise to finish this program and the large majority of voters who support the ability of these young people to legally work and live in the United States.”

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that public schools could not expel students for being undocumented, before DACA even high school valedictorians had few options once they turned 18. They could not work legally, apply for driver’s licenses or travel abroad. Many also gave up on attending college, because they were ineligible for the more affordable resident rates.

Young undocumented immigrants had held sit-ins before Obama created the program, and they fought to defend it before the Supreme Court. Now they are mostly in their 20s, working as teachers, doctors and laborers, and have a foothold in the middle class.

Most are from Mexico, but they also hail from dozens of countries such as Belize, Ghana, South Korea and Turkey, according to federal court records. Because they had lived in the United States so long — the average age of arrival is 7, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank — most already felt American, if not on paper.

Harvard University sociologist Roberto G. Gonzales said DACA was a “game changer.” High school dropouts returned to school. Thousands opened bank accounts, applied for credit cards and bought houses and cars. They pay taxes and student loans and invest in 401(k)s.

“It has completely transformed lives,” said Gonzales, whose team tracked more than 400 dreamers over the past eight years. “They’ve really soared. We see young people who have doubled, tripled, quadrupled salaries over this time.”

As many as 800,000 young people have enrolled in the program over the past eight years, although some have since dropped out for various reasons, such as those who married U.S. citizens and gained permanent residency.

University of California President Janet Napolitano, who was homeland security secretary when DACA was launched, hailed the ruling as a boon for students who have relied on the program while they pursue degrees.

UC, which had filed suit in 2017 to preserve the program, estimates that about 1,700 of its undergraduates have DACA protection. “I just have to believe they are breathing a huge sigh of relief,” Napolitano said Thursday afternoon in a Zoom interview. “This was kind of like the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head.”

Ivonne Beltran Lara, 30, whose parents brought her to the United States from Colombia when she was 6, said she had to drop out of college because she could not afford tuition. She spent more than four years working as a nanny.

But DACA gave her hope that she would be able to go to medical school, because she needed a work permit to become a doctor. After Obama’s announcement, she returned to college, paying for it with savings and financial help from friends and family. After graduation she enrolled in the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine to become a doctor. She will graduate next year.

“I did not expect this ruling, honestly. I thought they were going to side with Trump,” she said of the Supreme Court.

Contreras said he hopes Congress will pass a law that will grant undocumented immigrants a path to legal residency. Approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants are in the United States.

“We’re just ready to keep fighting on,” Contreras said. “A lot of us were expecting the worst. This is good news. I know it’s not the end of it all, but it buys us a little more time to figure out a permanent solution.”

Herrera Spieler, the law student and DACA recipient, said having deferred action allowed her to work legally and finish college. She earned a full scholarship to law school at Loyola University Chicago and recently married and bought a condo in Tennessee, where her husband, a physician, works. He is trying to sponsor her for legal residency, but there are no guarantees, and not everyone in her family is protected. Her mother is facing an upcoming court hearing on deportation to Mexico.

“This is something, but we need a pathway to citizenship,” she said. “It’s not over.”

Nick Anderson contributed to this report.