The DACA decision: a victory for the rule of law and for humanity

The political fate of acutely vulnerable groups has been of concern for years. Immigrants living in the United States without valid immigration status are particularly vulnerable. A recent Supreme Court decision has provided temporary protection for a subset of these immigrants— those who came to the United States as children.

On June 18 the US Supreme Court, in DHS v. Regents of Univ. of California, found in favor of the 700,000-plus Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, also known as “Dreamers,” who came to the US as children. The Trump administration sought to end DACA and expel the Dreamers, but the five-to-four decision from the highest court struck down the attempt. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts identified what was at stake in the case: “The dispute before the Court is not whether DHS may rescind DACA. All parties agree that it may. The dispute is instead primarily about the procedure the agency followed in doing so.“

People are not political pawns

This decision is a victory for the rule of law and for humanity. While it may be too much to claim that the decision was a victory for “integral human development,” the Court did command, as it were, that people cannot be treated merely as instruments of policy (or as political pawns); rather, federal law “sets forth the procedures by which federal agencies are accountable to the public and their actions subject to review by the courts.” It requires agencies to engage in “reasoned decision-making,” and directs that agency decisions be “set aside” if they are “arbitrary” or “capricious.’’ This is perhaps more than a mere nod to the inviolability of human dignity. As law professor Maryellen Fullerton noted:

“[T]he Court remembered that ‘the people’ are more than an abstract notion; they are living, breathing human beings. Dealing with people requires recognizing their humanity. The Court returns the case to DHS with instructions to look in the eye of DACA recipients, their families, friends, neighbors, and employers, and expressly address and balance the disruption that rescinding DACA would inflict on all these lives.”

A short history of DACA

By way of background, in 2012 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the DACA program for immigrants who had come to the United States before they were 16 years old without valid immigration status. According to the Obama administration, these migrants warranted humanitarian consideration. Despite various congressional attempts to provide status to this select group of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, there was no change in the law and these individuals remained without a path to permanent status in the United States.

Frustrated by the lack of congressional action, the Obama Administration in 2012 issued a directive stating that individuals who met certain qualifications should not be targeted for any enforcement action, including deportation. This DACA program determined that all Dreamers qualify for what in immigration law is called “deferred action,” an administrative tool used by the executive branch to provide discrete relief to certain individuals with compelling personal circumstances warranting compassion and special treatment on humanitarian grounds.

As a result of this directive and the DACA program it established, approximately 1.7 million people who had been living in legal limbo, unable to attend school or work and anxious about their future, received temporary relief and an opportunity to live with some dignity. Without any legal status, migrants in the US are not eligible to work or receive any federal or state assistance, including financial aid or student loans. They have no way to provide food or shelter for themselves or their families. Afraid of being apprehended and deported by immigration enforcement, they live in a constant state of fear. Of the approximately 1.7 million individuals who were eligible for this relief, more than 700,000 individuals were granted deferred action.

Not a “free pass”

Lest critics of DACA claim that it is a “free pass” for immigrants without valid immigration status, consider the requirements to qualify for deferred action under the program. The Dreamers must have arrived in the United States before the age of sixteen (and cannot be thirty-one or older) and have been residing continuously in the US since June 15, 2007. They must be enrolled in school, be a high school graduate, or have an honorable discharge from the United States Coast Guard or a military branch. Finally, the Dreamers cannot be convicted felons or have a significant misdemeanor on their records. Results of a survey released recently from Pew Research show that nearly seventy-five percent of US adults support Dreamers. Virtually all of the Dreamers were born in the neighboring regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, and they have strong family and community ties.

The Supreme Court decision on DACA is significant for two important reasons. First, the Court, relying on the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), confirms that while the executive branch may have broad authority over federal agency decisions, this authority has limits, and the Court will hold an agency, in this case DHS, accountable for its actions. This decision establishes a significant precedent. The Supreme Court concluded that it had authority to review DHS’s actions and also determined that such actions violated the APA.

In its effort to dismantle DACA, the Trump administration did not do so legally.

The Supreme Court, significantly, also held that the DHS decision violated the APA. That is, Congress had legislated, via the Administrative Procedures Act, that when an agency—in this case the Department of Homeland Security—reverses a previous agency decision, it must provide an adequate and reasonable explanation for a reversal. Such a change in agency policy cannot be arbitrary or capricious. Notably, the Court concluded, these statutory requirements are there to allow “the parties and the public [to] respond fully and in a timely manner to an agency’s exercise of authority.” In sum, a federal agency cannot make a decision behind a veil of secrecy, with no opportunity for the public and those affected to weigh in and provide input.  Federal agencies are accountable to the public.

Second, the Court ruled that the individuals who were granted deferred action under the Obama administration had relied on this temporary immigration status; revoking this commitment damages the integrity of US government decisions (in this case, a firm “promise”). This is, in other words, a matter of trust; can people count on US government commitments? More than 700,000 individuals who had been granted this status made decisions regarding their livelihoods and began to live their lives openly and publicly, a requirement for achieving their personal and career goals. These individuals began to work, attend college, and plan for their futures in meaningful ways.

The Court decision reminded all of us that government decisions have real and measurable consequences on people’s lives and their ability to flourish.

Recognizing this dimension of human dignity, to use our term, the Court held that DHS’s failure even to consider or address how individuals would be harmed by rescinding the DACA status was arbitrary, capricious, and in violation of the law. This is an important point from a moral as well as a legal vantage. Bureaucratic decisions are not just about checking boxes or sorting through forms; agency decisions have indelible impacts on human lives and a person’s ability to survive and to flourish. Indeed, the Supreme Court insisted that “[T]the government should turn square corners in dealing with the people [affected by the agency decision].” Ignoring the human cost of its drastic reversal in immigration policy made the DHS’ decision unacceptable.

The Supreme Court decision on DACA was in line with what lower courts found: In its effort to dismantle DACA, the Trump administration did not do so legally and did not consider how discontinuing the program would violate the rights of DACA recipients. The Supreme Court confirmed that executive branch action, even on matters where it has broad discretion such as immigration, is not absolute. Most important, the Court decision reminded all of us that government decisions have real and measurable consequences on people’s lives and their ability to flourish.

So: Three (sorely needed) cheers for the judicial branch of the US government, which—in this pivotal case, at least—scored a point for human dignity and—who knows?—perhaps even for integral human development.


Erin Corcoran is associate teaching professor in the Keough School of Global Affairs and executive director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Corcoran’s work focuses on immigration and refugee law, human rights law, and other complex legal topics at the national and local level.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.



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