WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Tuesday (Nov 12) began hearing arguments over the legality of President Donald Trump's effort to rescind a program that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants who entered the United States illegally as children - dubbed "Dreamers" - part of his tough immigration policies.
The nine justices opened a scheduled 80 minutes of arguments over the Republican president's 2017 plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program implemented in 2012 by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.
Trump's administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he created DACA by executive action, bypassing Congress. Trump has made his hardline immigration policies - cracking down on legal and illegal immigration and pursuing construction of a wall along the US-Mexican border - a centerpiece of his presidency and 2020 re-election campaign.
The court's 5-4 conservative majority includes two justices - Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh - appointed by Trump.
DACA currently shields about 660,000 immigrants - mostly Hispanic young adults - from deportation and provides them work permits, though not a path to citizenship. The Supreme Court is hearing the administration's appeals of lower court rulings in California, New York and the District of Columbia that blocked Trump's move and left DACA in place.
The lower courts ruled that Trump's move to rescind DACA was likely "arbitrary and capricious" and violated a U.S. law called the Administrative Procedure Act.
The justices must determine whether administration officials failed to provide adequate reasons for the decision to end DACA. The initial memo rescinding DACA, the plaintiffs said, gave a "one-sentence explanation" and did not spell out why the administration believes the program is unlawful. The justices will also have to decide whether the administration's action against DACA is even something courts can review.
Several hundred DACA supporters gathered outside the court on a gray and chilly Tuesday morning, chanting, banging drums and carrying signs that read "home is here" and "defend DACA."
Anel Medina, a 28-year-old DACA enrollee and oncology nurse in Philadelphia, was among the demonstrators.
"It changed my life. I was able to get a job ... finish nursing school," said Medina, who was born in Mexico City and brought by her mother to the United States at age 5.
Medina said she was a college student and living without legal status when Obama launched DACA.
The challengers who sued to stop Trump's action included a collection of states such as California and New York, people currently protected by the program and civil rights groups.
"The president's decision to end DACA ... was not only illegal, it ran contrary to American values," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat.
'A DEAL WILL BE MADE'
Trump has given mixed messages about the "Dreamers," saying in 2017 that he has "a great love" for them even as he sought to kill a program that protected them from deportation. Ahead of the arguments on Tuesday, his tone was darker.
"Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from 'angels.' Some are very tough, hardened criminals," Trump wrote on Twitter.
Immigrants who had been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor crimes were not eligible to apply to the DACA program and any DACA recipient can be stripped of the program's protections and deported if they commit serious crimes.
Trump added, "If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!" Trump offered no details of any deal.
Trump previously has called on Congress to "advance responsible immigration reform" but never proposed a detailed replacement for DACA.
Ken Cuccinelli, the Trump administration's acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, said in a statement on Tuesday that DACA is "a de facto amnesty program for hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens."
"If Congress wants to shield these aliens from deportation and provide them a legal status, that is its prerogative," Cuccinelli added. "In the meantime, DHS (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) is a law-enforcement agency and nothing should keep it from enforcing the law."
Obama created DACA to protect immigrants who as minors were brought into the United States illegally or overstayed a visa. Obama acted after Congress failed to pass a bipartisan immigration policy overhaul that would have provided a path to citizenship to these young immigrants.
The young people protected under DACA, Obama said, were raised and educated in the United States, grew up as Americans and often know little about their countries of origin.
Trump's supporters, including 13 conservative states led by Texas, have said DACA imposed costs on the states by compelling them to provide services for DACA recipients, including healthcare, education and law enforcement.
The program, which allows eligible immigrants to obtain renewable two-year work permits, remains in effect for those already enrolled but the administration has refused to approve new applications.
The "Dreamers" moniker is based on the name of bipartisan legislation - never passed - called the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act that would have granted these young immigrants legal status.