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The nation’s top court thwarted President Donald Trump’s plans to place more than 600,000 young people — including nearly 200,000 in California — in legal calamity today, ruling that his administration cannot for now dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

In a complicated 5-4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority sided against the president, whose efforts to end DACA stalled in 2017 after judges in several lower courts dinged the administration for violating federal rules that say a president has to give adequate justification for ending a program. The court’s majority agreed with the lower courts on the main question. 

The “decision to rescind DACA was arbitrary and capricious” and “must be vacated,” wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority in the case, Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. 

The decision doesn’t weigh in on whether the White House can end DACA itself. Instead, the justices ruled how the Trump administration went about dismantling DACA was wrong.

Relief for Dreamers

“I think I’m still trying to process, it’s this huge sigh of relief for now,” said Raiza Dominguez, a 28-year-old graduate student in social work at CSU Stanislaus who received DACA status in 2013. Trump’s move to wind down DACA and the slow-moving court process had her feeling that “nothing feels stable, so to have this reassurance at least for now, it’s really reaffirming.”

Raiza Dominguez De Anda graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology at California State University-Stanislaus in 2018. A DACA recipient, she celebrated today’s Supreme Court decision to preserve her path to citizenship. Photo courtesy of Raiza Dominguez De Anda

The spotlight on DACA has made her feel under attack, and as if recipients such as herself were being “used as bargaining chips” in Congress over a permanent solution for “Dreamers,” as DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. are sometimes called, in exchange for increased spending on immigration enforcement and a border wall. 

Unlike some other children who are undocumented, Dominguez knew of her family status at a young age. The knowledge taught her to be careful. 

“Just a traffic stop … at the very least could get your car taken away, and of course you could be deported,” she said. “It taught me that I needed to hide and protect myself in any way.”

More work ahead

California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the Supreme Court decision today opens the possibility for new applicants to apply for DACA status. In 2019, the California Department of Justice led 21 attorneys general across the country in a defense of DACA before the Supreme Court.

During a press conference this morning, Becerra said a district court in D.C. is now in a position to lift a restriction on new applicants that it placed on itself while the legality of Trump’s actions were moving up through the courts. “That means that all those folks that didn’t get to apply should get to apply fairly soon,” he said.

He cautioned though that “we have to pause for a second and let the judicial process unravel itself because now we have to go back down to those various district courts throughout the country where these cases were being litigated.”

Just a traffic stop could get you, at the very least could get your car taken away, and of course you could be deported. It taught me that I needed to hide and protect myself in any way.

Raiza Dominguez, graduate student, csu stanislaus

Given the current uncertainty over next steps, Becerra warned current Dreamers to be careful. “Don’t let anyone rip you off; there are people out there unfortunately who will try to do that,” he said. “Go to people you trust. There are organizations out there that have been fighting, not taking advantage of people’s money. They’ve been doing this for the right reasons.”

The National Immigration Law Center was more direct in its analysis of today’s ruling, writing in a press release that the decision “reopens the DACA program to new applicants.” It said that  “All eligible individuals are encouraged to consult with an immigration attorney to apply for, or renew, their DACA immediately.”

Governor Gavin Newsom also said while the Supreme Court decision was an important victory, more should be done. 

“We need a permanent solution for undocumented Californians and acknowledge that a pathway to citizenship is not enough,” he said in a statement. “This moment reminds us we are confronting the systemic injustice and racism that exists within our nation and institutions. We will fight for everyone to be treated with dignity and respect.”

The decision is also a victory for Janet Napolitano, who as president of the University of California led the system in suing Trump to block his bid in rescinding DACA. Napolitano is also the architect of the program, which debuted in 2012 when she was secretary of Homeland Security under the Obama administration.

“Most successful policy”

DACA protected young people who lacked the immigration status to live in the U.S. against deportation and allowed them to work. “I would argue that DACA is the most successful policy of immigrant integration in recent decades,” said Roberto Gonzales, a professor of education at Harvard University. He has studied undocumented youth for 18 years and followed the lives of such 150 young adults living in Southern California for his book Lives in Limbo. The higher earnings for DACA recipients “have allowed them to purchase cars, move their families into better living situations, and put their children in daycare programs.”

California has by the far the nation’s greatest number of DACA recipients— nearly 184,000 as of March. The next closest state, Texas, had 106,000 recipients. Many of California’s recipients are likely still in high school or college. Data by the Migration Policy Institute in 2017, the most recent to indicate school status by state, showed that more than a third of California’s DACA recipients were high school or college students.

DACA’s fate was always in doubt because it was a presidential action rather than a law approved by Congress. Federal lawmakers failed several times in the past decade to protect Dreamers.

There comes a whole set of skills with having to navigate life while being undocumented

Gloria Montiel, senior grant writer, Altamed Health Services

The liberal think tank Center for American Progress estimated that the average age for when DACA students came to the U.S. was 7 and a third arrived before they were 5. Supporters of DACA say deporting the students is inhumane because it punishes them for actions their parents or guardians took that they had no control over. Because of DACA eligibility rules — applicants had to be 15 years or older by June of 2012 but younger than 31 —  the average of DACA recipients as of March is 26.

The Supreme Court’s decision to delay the sunset on DACA allows college students to continue working, an essential lifeline for those who are otherwise barred from federal financial aid. California provides state aid to eligible undocumented students, including those without DACA, which can cover tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities. Students with DACA can supplement their living costs through work while remaining in school, improving the likelihood they’ll finish their degrees. 

Without work authorization, students technically cannot serve as teaching assistants, work in labs and take on other campus jobs that are “a big part of a student’s education,” said Maria Blanco, executive director of the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center.

Anxiety and workarounds

As a DACA recipient, Gloria Montiel’s first day as an adjunct professor in 2017 was bizarre. 

After introducing herself, she immediately followed up with, “I don’t know that I’m going to be able to finish the rest of the term,” she said in an interview. Montiel learned that day that Trump sought to dismantle the deferred action program, throwing her life into doubt. Since then, no matter how many plan B’s and C’s she developed in case the protections are rescinded, she still found herself refreshing news sites on days when the Supreme Court might hand down its ruling on DACA. 

“Anxiety doesn’t even begin to cut in terms of describing some of the emotions,” she said yesterday when asked about the impending ruling.

This morning, after just 1.5 hours of sleep, she told CalMatters that the court’s decision gives her “a sense of relief” for her community, but she is also “well aware that the work continues” toward a “more permanent and inclusive” solution.

The class, by the way, was for a certificate program that trains education professionals to work with undocumented families.

Montiel, who attended high school in Santa Ana, received her DACA status in 2013, after finishing Harvard University with a bachelor’s but before earning a doctorate from the Claremont Graduate University in education policy — the first undocumented student at the school to receive a PhD. Her dissertation was on high-achieving undocumented Latino students attending highly selective colleges, a subject she knows well.  She came with her family to the U.S. from Guerrero, Mexico when she was 2, left the states when she was 4, and moved back permanently to the U.S. when she was 8. 

“There comes a whole set of skills with having to navigate life while being undocumented,” she said, an observation mirrored by other academics. 

‘Dreamers’ and DACA supporters rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court today after the court rejected the Trump administration’s push to end an Obama-era program that gives nearly 700,000 so-called Dreamers the ability to work in the United States and avoid deportation. California played a key role in the legal challenge. Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Young adults who learn that they’re undocumented are also confronted with extreme uncertainty about their futures, which can affect their decisions to remain in high school or go to college. “I felt the world caving in on me,” said one student in a 2011 study about young undocumented immigrants. “What was I going to do? I couldn’t ask my parents. They didn’t know about college or anything. I was kind of quiet in school, so I didn’t really know my teachers. Besides, I was scared. What would they do if they knew? I was scared and alone.”

Undocumented students who do end up finishing college and lack work authorization must all contend with a limited job market. Gonzales, author of the 2011 study, wrote that “the years of schooling did not offer much advantage in low-wage labor markets — the only labor markets to which they had access.”

DACA’s work protections, however, serve “as an entry point towards realizing career aspirations, as well as a basis of financial support for beneficiaries and their families,” a report Gonzales co-wrote in 2019 said. “Work authorization has enabled DACA beneficiaries to acquire jobs in the formal labor market, access newfound workplace agency, and achieve upward mobility.”

Another study shows that DACA is responsible for a 6% increase in high school graduation rates among undocumented youth. The authors wrote that “policies that increase the real or perceived economic opportunities of disadvantaged youth may lead to a more educated workforce.”

Student resources

Public colleges in California typically have staff who coordinate outreach efforts for undocumented students. Ariana Gonzalez, a counselor at Modesto Junior College, a community college, directs students to services depending on their need. For students transferring to four-year universities, she helps them write and receive messages to Dreamer centers at those schools so that they feel welcomed and become aware of campus resources there. Modesto Junior College also uses a portion of a $10 million state grant to partner with the United Farmworkers Union Foundation to provide free legal support for students renewing their DACA status, submitting applications for citizenship or seeking asylum protections in the U.S., among other services.  

Like most community colleges, Modesto doesn’t have a center dedicated to undocumented students; in California, only 35 do and of those just 19 have a coordinator, according to a 2019 California Community Colleges survey. But Gonzalez says that’s by choice at Modesto. It previously had a center for international and undocumented students, but then college leadership decided it’s “the whole college’s responsibility to serve students and so there’s a more decentralized approach,” Gonzalez said. 

That means several staffers at the financial aid office who specialize in state financial aid applications for undocumented students, for example, Gonzalez explained. There’s no way to know how many undocumented students attend the college. The college has around 500 students who qualified for the California Dream Act application, which allows some undocumented students to receive state financial aid.

San Joaquin Delta College, a community college in Stockton, has a dedicated dreamer center. Sergio Lara, who heads the office, takes 30-minute appointments with students and refers them to resources depending on their need, including state financial aid. Lara can also alert students to Catholic Charities, which provides students a range of health and social services.

The UFW Foundation offers legal consultations to Delta students twice a month. Students can seek help with DACA renewals and also explore other solutions to avoid deportation, such as the U Visa for victims of crimes in the U.S. and family petitions for undocumented individuals whose immediate relatives are citizens. An attorney from the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation also takes legal appointments with students.

Both Lara and Montiel said colleges should do a better job of preparing undocumented students for the workforce by training them to open their own businesses. Montiel explored the entrepreneurship route while she was in college, becoming “familiar with the opportunity for consulting, for being an independent contractor for creating my own business” because DACA hadn’t yet existed.

Montiel wants college courses and campus career centers to prepare undocumented students for self-employment rather than work for employers, which many cannot do because of their immigration status.

Setting up a business structure or a sole proprietorship is an initial investment that “colleges are well positioned to make because of their responsibility to train undergraduates for the next step,” Montiel said. An LLC designation in California costs hundreds of dollars in most cases.

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Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...