The Supreme Court ruled against President Donald Trump on Thursday in a set of cases over his effort to end the Obama-era immigration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
The ruling will protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who have been shielded from deportation and allowed to receive work permits under the program. There were about 700,000 DACA recipients at the time Trump ordered the program to wind down in September 2017.
The 5-4 opinion was authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, and joined by the court's liberals, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Roberts reasoned that the Trump administration's termination of the program was "arbitrary and capricious," in violation of federal law that governs administrative procedure.
"We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies. 'The wisdom' of those decisions 'is none of our concern,'" Roberts wrote.
"We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients," Roberts added. "That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner."
It is possible that the Trump administration could make another effort to terminate DACA in a way that complies with the ruling, though Trump faces re-election against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in November. As a candidate, Trump pledged to terminate DACA "immediately."
"As President of the United States, I am asking for a legal solution on DACA, not a political one, consistent with the rule of law," Trump wrote in a post on Twitter Thursday afternoon. "The Supreme Court is not willing to give us one, so now we have to start this process all over again."
In a dissent joined by fellow conservatives Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the majority decision "must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision."
"Today the majority makes the mystifying determination that this rescission of DACA was unlawful. In reaching that conclusion, the majority acts as though it is engaging in the routine application of standard principles of administrative law. On the contrary, this is anything but a standard administrative law case," Thomas wrote.
The ruling comes just days after the court ruled in favor of LGBT workers in a blockbuster gay rights case that held that employees may not be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Gorsuch authored the opinion for the court in that case. He was joined by Roberts and the court's liberals. The back-to-back wins for liberals are a surprising development from the court, which has 5-4 conservative majority.
The setback for the Trump administration comes less than five months before the 2020 election, where the president appears poised to pivot back to immigration as a central campaign issue.
In a Fox News interview Wednesday night, Trump said he will "soon" be traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border to tout the construction of a border wall. "I'm going to be at the wall very soon. We're going to celebrate over 200 [miles built]," Trump said.
The losses for conservatives at the high court threaten to minimize the political salience of one of the president's most frequent boasts — his appointment of conservative federal judges and Supreme Court justices.
But in a post on Twitter shortly after the DACA opinion was handed down, Trump spun that calculus around, arguing that the decisions show "We need more Justices or we will lose our 2nd. Amendment & everything else."
Trump wrote that the "horrible & politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts into the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives."
In a subsequent tweet, Trump wrote: "Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn't like me?"
He later pledged to produce "a new list of Conservative Supreme Court Justice nominees" by September, which he said he will pick from if a vacancy on the court opens up.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Former President Barack Obama, in his own tweet, wrote that eight years ago "we protected young people who were raised as part of our American family from deportation.
"Today, I'm happy for them, their families, and all of us. We may look different and come from everywhere, but what makes us American are our shared ideals," Obama wrote. Obama established the DACA program in 2012.
He added that, "now to stand up for those ideals, we have to move forward and elect @JoeBiden and a Democratic Congress that does its job, protects DREAMers, and finally creates a system that's truly worthy of this nation of immigrants once and for all."
Biden cheered the decision later Thursday. He said in a statement that if Trump attempts again to repeal DACA "he will be responsible for upending the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people and bringing harm to families and communities all across the country."
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led a coalition of 20 states and D.C. defending DACA before the top court, said in a statement that "we prevailed on behalf of every Dreamer who has worked hard to help build our country — our neighbors, teachers, doctors, and first responders."
"The highest court in our land saw through the Trump Administration's illegal, baseless excuses. The court agreed: If you work hard and play by the rules, you deserve a chance to get ahead," Becerra said.
Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said after the decision was handed down that he "cried tears of joy."
"These wonderful DACA kids and their families have a huge burden lifted off their shoulders. They don't have to worry about being deported, they can do their jobs, and, I believe, I do believe this, someday, someday soon, they will be American citizens," Schumer said.
DACA, and the young immigrants it shields known as "Dreamers," are broadly popular among the public, and Trump had shied away from arguing against the program as a matter of policy.
A Politico/Morning Consult survey conducted earlier this month showed that a majority of those who voted for Trump in 2016 supported protecting Dreamers from deportation. Among registered voters overall, more than 75% said DACA recipients should be allowed to remain in the United States.
Rather than challenge the program on policy grounds, Trump and attorneys for his administration have argued that former President Barack Obama lacked the legal authority to implement the program in the first place.
The administration's position that DACA was unlawful was laid out by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in September of 2017 in a letter to then Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke. The following day, Duke issued a memorandum relying on Sessions's legal finding noting that "DACA program should be terminated."
Two months later, after multiple groups challenged Duke's move, Duke's successor Kirstjen Nielsen elaborated on the administration's reasons for ending the program.
Roberts wrote that "despite purporting to explain the Duke Memorandum, Secretary Nielsen's reasoning bears little relationship to that of her predecessor."
"Acting Secretary Duke rested the rescission on the conclusion that DACA is unlawful," Roberts wrote. "By contrast, Secretary Nielsen's new memorandum offered three 'separate and independently sufficient reasons' for the rescission, only the first of which is the conclusion that DACA is illegal."
Roberts wrote that the court was obligated to consider Duke's explanations, not Nielsen's, given the "basic rule" that an agency "must defend its actions based on the reasons it gave when it acted."
Given that, Roberts wrote that Duke failed to take into consideration the full effects of doing away with the program. Among those consequences, he cited estimates that eliminating DACA would lead to the loss of $215 billion in economic activity and $60 billion in federal tax revenue over the next ten years.
"The consequences of the rescission, respondents emphasize, would 'radiate outward' to DACA recipients' families, including their 200,000 U.S.-citizen children, to the schools where DACA recipients study and teach, and to the employers who have invested time and money in training them," Roberts wrote.
Roberts wrote that those interests were not necessarily enough to ensure a loss for the administration. But, he said, the government was obligated to at least consider those factors, and it did not.
"Making that difficult decision was the agency's job, but the agency failed to do it," Roberts wrote.
In a statement, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said that "DACA recipients deserve closure and finality surrounding their status here in the U.S. Unfortunately, today's Supreme Court decision fails to provide that certainty."
"The DACA 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," Wolf said. "This ruling usurps the clear authority of the Executive Branch to end unlawful programs."
It was not immediately clear what impact the court's decision will have on Trump's suggestion that he would seek a deal with Democrats on the immigration program if the Supreme Court allowed him to terminate it, though it's unlikely that meaningful action will be made on a new deal before November's election.
"Rest assured that if the SC does what all say it must, based on the law, a bipartisan deal will be made to the benefit of all," Trump wrote in a post on Twitter last year, referring to the Supreme Court.
The ruling gives Democrats, who have long seen DACA as a stopgap measure, more leverage in any future discussions.
The administration's efforts to terminate DACA were previously halted by courts in New York, Washington, D.C., and California.
The cases are Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, No. 18-587, Donald Trump v. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, No. 18-588 and Kevin McAleenan v. Martin Jonathan Batalla Vidal, No. 18-589.