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Despite Supreme Court's Ruling On DACA, Trump Administration Rejects New Applicants

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students gather in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on June 18.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students gather in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on June 18.

The Supreme Court ruling last month that allowed DACA to continue felt like a win for young immigrants like Diego, a 17-year-old high school student.

Right away, he applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, to get the work permit and the protection from deportation that come with it.

"It's life-changing," said Diego, who asked not to use his last name because he was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child. "So we can go on with our lives, without fearing to get deported the next day, or you know, never seeing my mom again, or never seeing my brother again."

But his DACA application was rejected.

There are hundreds of thousands of Diegos in this country — young people who would be eligible to sign up for DACA, except that the Trump administration is still not accepting new, first-time applications. The administration is only processing renewals.

DACA recipients and their families were elated when the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration didn't go about ending the popular program correctly. Many immigration lawyers thought that meant the program would have to be restarted to allow new applications.

But that hasn't happened. And critics accuse the Trump administration of ignoring the high court's ruling.

"That's insane. That's a violation of the order," said Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and Director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco.

It's been nearly a month since the Supreme Court's ruling. So technically, Hing says, that order should be in full effect and DACA should be operating exactly the way it was before the administration moved to end it.

"Legally, there's no basis to reject any new applications," Hing said. "I'm very upset and disturbed that this is an example of politics reigning over law."

Diego's rejection notice says that the Trump administration is "no longer accepting initial requests" for DACA.

"It's like an itch that you can't get to," Diego said. "It's a terrible feeling."

Diego was born in Puebla, Mexico, and moved to Michigan with his mother and brother as a young child. He was too young to sign up for DACA when the Trump administration moved to end the program in 2017. Now he's heading into his senior year of high school in a suburb of Detroit, and hoping to apply to college.

"It's just so unfortunate when you have an administration that doesn't even give full credit to the Supreme Court," said Tamara French, Diego's lawyer. "And that's where we're at."

The Trump administration has long maintained that DACA was created illegally by President Obama.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles DACA applications, says the administration is still reviewing the Supreme Court's decision and referred back to the agency's statement from last month that the high court's ruling has "no basis in law."

"The constitutionality of this de facto amnesty program created by the Obama administration has been widely questioned since its inception," said Joseph Edlow, the deputy director for policy at USCIS.

"The fact remains that under DACA, hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens continue to remain in our country in violation of the laws passed by Congress and to take jobs Americans need now more than ever."

USCIS is renewing DACA status for about 650,000 people who already have it. But new applicants are out of luck. A notice on the agency's website says the same thing it has for months: "USCIS is not accepting requests from individuals who have never before been granted deferred action under DACA."

President Trump has flip-flopped on DACA for years, and it was no different after the Supreme Court ruling. At first, Trump said he would move quickly to terminate the program again — this time in a way that would pass muster with the Supreme Court. But in recent days, Trump has softened his stance.

On Friday, the president promised a "road to citizenship" for DACA recipients during an interview with Telemundo before the White House walked that back.

Then last night, Trump said he would be "taking care" of DACA recipients.

"We're going to work on DACA because we want to make people happy," Trump said during a press conference in the White House Rose Garden where President Obama first announced the program eight years earlier.

"We're gonna be signing an immigration act very soon. It's gonna be based on merit. It's gonna be very strong," Trump said.

But immigrant advocates are skeptical.

"There's no basis in the law for him to do what he says he was going to do," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which helped bring one of the DACA cases that went up to the Supreme Court. She thinks Trump is deliberately dragging its feet.

"He has continued to make threats to end this very successful and popular DACA policy, while making these nonsensical and confusing statements that ... create a level of stress and anxiety for DACA recipients and their family members," Hincapié said.

Immigrant advocates are ready to go back to court, she says, to defend DACA — and if necessary, to force the administration to reopen the program to the estimated 300,000 young immigrants who are still waiting for a chance to apply.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.