DACA ruling ‘a huge victory,’ but Dreamers at Berkeley see an uncertain future

Students rallying in defense of the DACA program on Nov. 12, 2019, raise banners that say Defend DACA in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was a landmark victory for the University of California and its students and staff. (UC photo by Scott Henrichsen)

Thousands of immigrant students and staff at the University of California, Berkeley, and across the UC system won continued protection from deportation today when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that President Donald Trump had improperly ended a program that allowed them to study and work in the United States.

The decision said the Trump administration had been “arbitrary and capricious” in ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2017. The decision provides at least temporary security for about 1,700 UC students — some 250 at Berkeley — whose parents brought them to the country as children without documentation.

Berkeley Law student Yongbin Chang smiles, wearing a UC Berkeley jersey

Yongbin Chang, a Berkeley Law student and DACA recipient, says he’s pleased with the Supreme Court decision, but that much more work must be done to solve the plight of undocumented students. (Photo by Alejandro Serrano)

“Part of me was bracing for negative news,” said Yongbin Chang, a Berkeley Law student who, at age three, came with his parents from South Korea to the United States. “But then when I saw the decision, I thought, ‘Wow! The next stepping stone!’ … There’s still a lot of work ahead. The question for me is: What’s the next step?”

Staff member Valeria Chavez-Ayala, a DACA recipient who is an academic counselor for Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program, said she had been “very anxious,” about the decision and how it would impact her and the students she advises.

“I feel relief,” she said. “The decision is on our side, and it’s a small victory, but at the same time, I have mixed emotions. Some students and community members never qualified for DACA. …And I also think about immigrants and refugees sitting in detention centers right now — we need to do better as a society.”

While the future of the DACA program remains uncertain, UC leaders and students joined Chang and Chavez-Ayala in celebrating the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision for its legal and human impact on an estimated 700,000 DACA recipients, commonly referred to as “Dreamers,” in California and nationwide.

UC President Janet Napolitano helped create DACA when she served as secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, and she led the university’s legal action against Trump’s 2017 decision to end DACA. She joined UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez in calling the ruling “historic.”

“At every step in our case,” they wrote, “we were acutely aware of the tangible, harmful impacts of ending the DACA policy on the lives of these individuals and their families, and on the communities where they are valued contributors. Today’s decision is a hard-won victory for these DACA recipients, their families, and our whole community. It is a victory for justice and due process. And it is a victory for what is legal, and what is right.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law, called the ruling “a huge victory for the rule of law.” The human implications of the ruling are “enormous,” he added, because the students and staff covered by DACA would “otherwise would face deportation, usually to places they never lived.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law, called the ruling “a huge victory for the rule of law.” (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian)

Chang is just one advocate in a Berkeley community that has played a robust role in defending DACA and supporting “Dreamers.” He works with Berkeley Law’s East Bay Dreamers Project, a partnership between law students and the East Bay Community Law Center. Berkeley Law’s Pro Bono Program has provided extensive support to DACA recipients, helping some to renew their applications ahead of the court’s decision.

Chemerinsky helped to litigate the case. And Berkeley Law alumnus Theodore Olson, who served as U.S. Solicitor General under President George W. Bush, last fall argued the UC case before the Supreme Court.

The DACA program was established to give security and opportunity to hundreds of thousands of immigrants whose parents had brought them to the United States as children. To qualify, they had to prove that they had been in country continuously since June 15, 2007, and that they had no criminal records.

The order was based on a key principle: The young immigrants, having been raised and educated in the United States, were for practical purposes Americans, lacking only legal recognition.

Most of the “Dreamers” came from Mexico and other Latin American countries, but a significant portion also came from Asia. They were protected by DACA from the threat of deportation and given authorization to study and work in the United States, provided they renewed their applications every two years. Under DACA, they also could get driver’s licenses, Social Security and pay taxes.

Trump took office in January 2017, and nine months later, the White House announced plans to end the program. The administration argued that DACA was unconstitutional because Obama established it without legal authority. But the UC quickly intervened, asking the courts to set aside the Trump decision as “unconstitutional, unjust, and unlawful.”

Ted Olson and Janet Napolitano speak in front of microphones outside the supreme court

From left, UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez, United We Dream Deputy Executive Director Greisa Martinez Rosas and UC President Janet Napolitano gather around the microphone as NPR’s Nina Totenberg interviews Ted Olson, who made oral arguments before the Supreme Court on behalf of the University of California in November 2019. (University of California photo Scott Henrichsen)

“The University faces the loss of vital members of its community, students and employees,” the lawsuit said. “It is hard to imagine a decision less reasoned, more damaging, or undertaken with less care.”

Lower courts in California and in other jurisdictions blocked Trump’s move, forcing the question to the Supreme Court.

In today’s decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court found that the administration had not followed proper administrative procedures for assessing the impact of the decision. In effect, the ruling sends the matter back to the Trump administration, which could seek again to end DACA, while following the required legal procedures.

“They could try to do so quickly,” Chemerinsky said. “But it would be challenged in court. It surely would not be resolved by January. So, ultimately, the outcome will depend on the November election.”

The DACA ruling follows a Supreme Court decision on Monday (June 15) that extended landmark employment protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual workers.

Trump denounced the decisions in a tweet Thursday morning: “These 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.”

On the Berkeley campus, the decision was welcomed as a relief for students and staff who are working to build their lives — and who, in many cases, are already making significant contributions to the world.

“They have lived with so much uncertainty and anguish since at least the 2016 election,” said Cristina Mora, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at Berkeley. “The ruling likely provides ‘Dreamers’ a sense that they can plan some of their next life steps — going to graduate school, settling into their careers and so on. The stress of living on pause for so much time has taken its toll, but today is a good day, and they can take some comfort in knowing that their legal status is on sturdier ground.”

Still, the consensus is that the future remains uncertain.

Professor Lisa García Bedolla was honored for her attention to educational inequality and political engagement.

Lisa García Bedolla, dean of the Graduate Division, heads a group that has evaluated how the end of DACA might affect Berkeley.

“The good news is that the worst case scenario didn’t happen,” said Lisa García Bedolla, dean of the Graduate Division and head of a campus working group planning in the event that DACA ended. “But the precarity of our undocumented students remains — it’s just not as bad as it could have been. Our continued focus will be on how best to support and provide assistance to these students.”

Liliana Iglesias, director of Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program, said the court’s decision “honestly was a surprise, a great thing to wake up to, especially given the scrutiny that came from the justices in November when they heard the case.” But she also was guarded in her remarks about what’s next.

“This is a victory — DACA has never been the permanent solution, but it is safe, for now, and it’s such a great relief,” she said. “But depending on who is in the next (presidential) administration, it could still be in danger.”

Chang shares those mixed feelings. Having worked with immigrants, he feels relief for people who were eligible for DACA but were unable to apply for it — and hopes that they will now have an opening.

“It must have been disheartening (for them),” he said. “I imagine the (immigration legal services center) is going to be a little busier now, with more DACA renewals and hopefully more first-time DACA applications. But it’s the type of busy that’s welcome.”

Kelly Devers Franklin contributed to this report.