The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a legal challenge being brought against President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA, enacted by President Barack Obama in 2012, enabled roughly 800,000 young, undocumented people to defer their deportations and live and work in the U.S.
Dozens of DACA recipients watched Tuesday’s proceedings in the nation’s highest court. They traveled to the Supreme Court on foot, marching 230 miles over 18 days from New York to Washington, D.C., to call attention to the case and show their faces to the justices who will decide their fates. When the young “Dreamers,” as they have been dubbed, emerged from the court to meet hundreds of pro-immigrant supporters gathered outside, the crowd erupted into chants and cheers
Among the DACA recipients at court was Esther, a young community organizer of Korean background who prefers to use her first name only. Esther works with the National Korean American Services and Education Consortium and was one of the lead organizers of the #HomeIsHere march from New York to D.C. About a week into the march, she spoke with me from the basement of a church in Pittsburgh, where marchers had stopped to rest. Esther explained that the Dreamers marching with her hailed from all over the country and are concerned not just with DACA but with TPS, the program that confers temporary protection status to those fleeing disasters. (As with DACA, Trump has attempted to decimate the TPS program.)
As an undocumented immigrant, Esther might be expected to remain in the shadows, keep her head down, and not risk her vulnerable position in the country. But, as she put it, “We always believed in the power of story.” Esther and her fellow marchers have been telling their stories for years now and have refused to await their fate silently. Their organizing has worked.
“We know that more than 80% of the American public supports DACA right now, and that’s because of the remarkable courage and bravery that’s been shown by the undocumented community to risk their security and share with neighbors, friends and loved ones their stories and what it’s been like to be undocumented in this country,” she said.
In 2012, when DACA was unveiled, it was not a gift from the Obama administration so much as the culmination of Dreamers marching and organizing for years for the DREAM Act. Young people who had lived in the U.S. for most of their lives had begun “outing” themselves as undocumented and telling their life stories in an effort to put human faces to what might otherwise have been viewed by American citizens as an abstract issue.
It was just about nine years ago that the House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act. The Republican-controlled Senate promised to filibuster the popular bill, and in December 2010, as undocumented youths watched with bated breath, five Democratic senators voted with Republicans to deny the 60 votes needed for a filibuster-proof approval of the bill. The final vote tally of 55 to 41 crushed the dreams of the young undocumented people for whom the U.S. was the only country they had called home. It was only after the DREAM Act failed in the Senate that Obama took executive action to create the DACA program in 2012, enabling a fraction of the millions of undocumented people in the U.S. to live and work without fear of deportation.
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Along came Trump in 2017, and about six months into his tenure, a president who had campaigned on the criminalization and demonization of immigrants ended DACA. The action was immediately challenged legally, and one after another, lower courts have affirmed the program. Now, it is before the Supreme Court, where justices will determine whether its termination was lawful. Hours before the court heard arguments, Trump repeated a claim on Twitter that he has often made, without evidence: “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels.’ Some are very tough, hardened criminals.” He then inexplicably added, “If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!” (Which begs the question: If they are truly hardened criminals, as he maintains, why would he make a deal for them to stay?)
Esther is counting on justices recognizing the humanity of the people whose lives are at stake. “I really believe that despite the Supreme Court being seen as an apolitical institution, the justices are people who can see, hear and feel the widespread support that exists for this program,” she said. Reports suggest that the court is split along predictably partisan lines, and that Chief Justice John Roberts will be the closely watched swing vote in a ruling that is expected next spring.
The same week the Supreme Court heard arguments in the DACA case, a trove of emails by Trump’s leading immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, was leaked online. Miller, considered the architect of Trump’s immigration policies, communicated with the far-right news site Breitbart in the months before the 2016 election, and, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch program, “promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage.” Hatewatch, which reviewed about 900 emails from Miller, found that he focused on a “strikingly narrow” set of issues around race and immigration. Reviewers were “unable to find any examples of Miller writing sympathetically or even in neutral tones about any person who is nonwhite or foreign-born.”
Among the members of Congress calling for Miller’s resignation because of the leaked emails are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, two young women of color, one of them a refugee, who embody exactly the demographics by which Miller appears to feel threatened. Ocasio-Cortez called Miller “Trump’s architect of mass human rights abuses at the border (including child separation & detention camps w/ child fatalities).” Meanwhile, Omar, who came under fire this year for calling Miller a “white nationalist,” repeated her claim, feeling vindicated by the leaked emails that her label was justified.
In the lead-up to Trump’s cancellation of the DACA program, Democratic lawmakers struck a tentative deal with the White House to preserve the program in exchange for tougher immigration enforcement. But Miller pushed Trump to abandon the deal and use the Dreamers as leverage to demand that immigration rates be cut by half. Miller has had his hand in nearly every anti-immigrant policy Trump has promoted, and the leaked emails show that his motivation is based on racist ideas.
Esther explained to me how important the case before the Supreme Court is for hundreds of thousands of people like her. If the court decides that Trump’s cancellation of the program was justified, she says, “It means that DACA recipients will lose their protection from deportation. It means that we will return to being undocumented. The stakes are extremely high.” But she insists that no one—not Trump, Miller or the Supreme Court—can take away her dignity. “I was undocumented once before,” she says. “I would prefer not to be undocumented again, but our community has a lot of power. We found a way to live before, we will continue to find a way to live now. We are still here to stay.”