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Federal judge in D.C. weighs ordering administration to restart ‘dreamers’ program

“Dreamers” and their supporters gather in 2017 in Hyattsville, Md.,  in response to the revocation of DACA.
“Dreamers” and their supporters gather in 2017 in Hyattsville, Md., in response to the revocation of DACA. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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A federal judge said Wednesday that he is considering ordering the Trump administration to restart the “dreamers” program and accept new applications for protection from deportation by undocumented immigrants brought here as children.

Such a ruling by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates in Washington would go further than federal district judges in California and New York have when they issued nationwide injunctions blocking the government’s plan to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, this month.

The injunctions, issued after lawsuits by several states and organizations, require the Department of Homeland Security to continue to accept DACA renewal requests from about 800,000 people in the program but not to process new applications.

Bates spoke near the end of a two-hour-long hearing Wednesday on two lawsuits seeking to overturn the administration’s ending of DACA in cases brought by the NAACP, Microsoft, Princeton University and a student.

The judge’s remarks came as White House officials told key Republican leaders that President Trump is open to cutting a deal in an upcoming spending bill to protect the dreamers in exchange for border-wall funding.

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No appellate court has reviewed the earlier court decisions, and the Supreme Court last month declined to enter the national controversy for now when it turned down a Trump administration request to immediately consider the decisions.

Supreme Court declines to enter controversy over ‘dreamers’

In Washington on Wednesday, Bates appeared skeptical of Justice Department arguments that he dismiss the lawsuits because immigration authorities have discretion and do not need a court review when it comes to deciding to halt a “non-enforcement” policy.

Bates said, “You have been unsuccessful in three other courts with this argument, correct?”

“Yes, your honor,” Justice Department trial attorney Brinton Lucas replied.

A federal judge in San Francisco ruled in January that challengers to the administration probably were correct in their contention that ending DACA violated the Administrative Procedure Act, because it is arbitrary and capricious. A federal judge in Brooklyn reached a similar finding in February. Both judges issued injunctions.

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Justice Department trial attorney Kathryn Davis told Bates that the administration ended the program because of the threat of legal challenges from a coalition of states led by Texas and a belief that the program created in the Obama administration could not be successfully defended in court.

Noting that explanation, Bates then asked why the change was presented to the government as a policy shift and not a legal conclusion by the Homeland Security and Justice departments. Bates questioned that legal conclusion given a 2014 Justice Department decision.

Noting the Washington court’s expertise in federal regulatory law, Bates sounded skeptical about whether issuing another nationwide injunction would be appropriate.

Rather, Bates said it might be better to strike down or vacate DHS’s attempt to end the program — which would oblige the government to continue to accept new DACA applications while the administration decides whether to try again to cancel DACA but with a fuller justification for the change in position.

Davis, the Justice attorney in court, opposed taking that course of action, saying it would create “undue chaos.”

Lindsay C. Harrison and Joseph M. Sellers, the plaintiff’s attorneys, said allowing new applications would not be disruptive because it would simply restore the status quo.