NEW ORLEANS - A federal appeals court Wednesday ordered a lower court review of Biden administration revisions to a program preventing the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought into the United States as children.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a federal district judge in Texas should take another look at the program following the revisions adopted in August. The ruling leaves the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals up in the air, with current DACA recipients protected -- for now -- but new applicants barred.
President Joe Biden said in a statement that he was "disappointed" in the ruling, noting, "The court's stay provides a temporary reprieve for DACA recipients but one thing remains clear: the lives of Dreamers remain in limbo." People protected by DACA are commonly referred to as "Dreamers," based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act.
The president added, "And while we will use the tools we have to allow Dreamers to live and work in the only country they know as home, it is long past time for Congress to pass permanent protections for Dreamers, including a pathway to citizenship."
The advocacy group Families Belong Together said in a statement, "It is beyond time for Congress and Biden to act on their promises."
DACA was adopted by former President Barack Obama's administration and has had a complicated ride through federal court challenges.
Texas-based U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen last year declared DACA illegal. He found that the program had not been subjected to public notice and comment periods required under the federal Administrative Procedures Act. But he left the program temporarily intact for those already benefiting from it, pending the appeal.
"Current DACA recipients can renew their status and apply for advance parole, but the ruling continues to block new applicants from being granted DACA," the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an advocacy organization, said in a statement. The organization was among advocates renewing calls Wednesday for the Biden administration and Congress to protect DACA recipients.
Wednesday's ruling by three judges of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit upholds the judge's initial finding. But it sends the case back to him for a look at a new version of the rule issued by the Biden administration in late August. The new rule takes effect Oct. 31.
"A district court is in the best position to review the administrative record in the rulemaking proceeding," said the opinion by Chief 5th Circuit Judge Priscilla Richman, nominated to the court by President George W. Bush. The other panel members were judges Kurt Engelhardt and James Ho, both appointees of President Donald Trump.
The new rule's 453 pages are largely technical and represent little substantive change from the 2012 memo that created DACA, but it was subject to public comments as part of a formal rule-making process intended to improve its chances of surviving legal muster.
In July arguments at the 5th Circuit, the U.S. Justice Department defended the program, allied with the state of New Jersey, immigrant advocacy organizations and a coalition of dozens of powerful corporations, including Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. They argued that DACA recipients have grown up to become productive drivers of the U.S. economy, holding and creating jobs and spending money.
Texas, joined by eight other Republican-leaning states argued that they are harmed financially, incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in health care, education and other costs, when immigrants are allowed to remain in the country illegally. They also argued that the White House overstepped its authority by granting immigration benefits that are for Congress to decide.
DACA is widely expected to go to the Supreme Court for a third time. In 2016, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 over an expanded DACA and a version of the program for parents of DACA recipients, keeping in place a lower court decision for the benefits to be blocked. In 2020, the high court ruled 5-4 that the Trump administration improperly ended DACA by failing to follow federal procedures, allowing it to stay in place.
DACA recipients have become a powerful political force even though they can't vote, but their efforts to achieve a path to citizenship through Congress have repeatedly fallen short. Any imminent threat to lose work authorization and to expose themselves to deportation could pressure Congress into protecting them, even as a stopgap measure.
The Biden administration disappointed some pro-DACA advocates with its conservative legal strategy of keeping age eligibility unchanged. DACA recipients had to have been in the United States in June 2007, an increasingly out-of-reach requirement. The average age of a DACA recipient was 28.2 years at the end of March, compared to 23.8 years in September 2017.
There were 611,270 people enrolled in DACA at the end of March, including 494,350, or 81%, from Mexico and large numbers from Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and South Korea.