Prof Shares Insights Into SCOTUS’ Decision on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Trump administration had violated procedural rules when it attempted to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, allowing DACA to stand. Though the decision extended DACA—providing the hundreds of thousands of “DREAMers” a measure of certainty—the decision did little to clarify long-term questions around immigration.

Professor Alessandra Bazo Vienrich, a visiting assistant professor of sociology for the 2019-2020 academic year, is deeply familiar with DACA. In addition to benefiting from DACA herself until 2017, she has focused her research on its impacts on immigrant youth. She shared her insight on the SCOTUS decision and DACA.

How does the Supreme Court decision on DACA change things for the program?

The program, which researchers from the National UnDACAmented Research Project consider to be the most successful immigration policy in recent times (PDF), has benefited approximately 800,000 undocumented immigrants since 2012. While some beneficiaries are indeed children and youth, others are now adults in their late 30s. The decision opens up the possibility for new DACA applications to be processed, meaning that new applicants who reached the age of eligibility (15 years of age) between 2017 and now, and had not been able to apply, may now be given the opportunity. For DACA beneficiaries who had DACA when it was announced that the program would be rescinded (in September 2017), and who continued to renew their DACA applications every two years, the decision makes that continued renewal of DACA possible. The decision also illuminates the fragility of the program in that SCOTUS’ ruling against the current administration’s efforts to end DACA was rooted in the fact that rescinding DACA violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

In other words, the court’s decision does not comment on whether DACA as a policy should remain. This could mean that the Trump administration could attempt to end DACA again, and perhaps next time successfully. Though the Trump administration has responded negatively to the SCOTUS decision, experts agree that it is unlikely that the program will be terminated before November 2020.

What does this mean for DACA beneficiaries?

There are a number of factors that determine how this affects DACA beneficiaries: Their state of residence, their age and whether they are in school or are part of the labor force, all shape how this decision affects them.

One of the immediate impacts of this decision may be the continued employability of DACA beneficiaries. They will be able to renew their work permits. My research with DACA college students in North Carolina and Massachusetts shows that paying for college was one of their main concerns. Educational interruptions were common as they took time off to work and save money to pay for college. The continued employability of DACA beneficiaries may also affect their likelihood to consider college within financial reach, even if educational interruptions lengthen their time in college.

What do you see as the next step in immigration policy?

I think that Justice Roberts’ statement on DACA—that the court was solely basing its ruling on “whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action”—is indicative of the urgency for comprehensive immigration reform.

Reform would not only give DACA beneficiaries a respite and a real chance to plan for their futures, it would also impact their families, who until now have been cast aside and frequently demonized as non-deserving in comparison to the promising DACA-eligible “youth.” It is estimated that 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the United States. Many of them would benefit from comprehensive immigration reform.

What are some of the challenges for the youth that this decision affects?

Getting DACA-qualifying immigrants to pursue DACA knowing the gamble they take in handing over their information to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to be a challenge. Estimates indicate that at the time DACA was announced, 1.3 million DACA-eligible immigrants lived in the United States, and only a fraction of them pursued the program.

A second challenge is the cost of applying for DACA protection. It costs $495 to apply for DACA status—that’s a lot of money any time, but it’s particularly difficult in the current economic climate as a result of COVID-19. This is where organizations like United We Dream can help. Some colleges and universities have stepped in to pay the legal fees of their DACA students as well.

What can colleges and universities do to support their DACA students?

The first thing is to move away from the distinction between DACA and undocumented as a marker of deservingness. The reality is that the fragility of a program like DACA makes those who benefit from it easily able to go back to being undocumented, and in turn deportable.

When support systems, programs, funds and a collective understanding of immigration are grounded on deservingness, this can reinforce the inequality inherent in programs that do not consider immigrants’ humanity, but rather their value.

In a more practical way, it is important to make immigration policy, and the history of immigration policies in the United States more broadly, available on college campuses. When students learn that the last “amnesty” took place more than 30 years ago, they begin to understand how DACA is just one small piece of a much larger problem in need of a systemic legislative solution.


  • June 24, 2020