The federal government will appeal a judge’s decision Friday to halt all new applications to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, President Joe Biden said Saturday morning, as the nine-year-old initiative offering protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children faces legal peril and an uncertain political future.

DACA recipients and their supporters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2020.

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Houston-based federal court Judge Andrew Hanen ruled DACA is illegal and barred the Department of Homeland Security from approving any new applications, but Hanen put much of his ruling on hold pending appeals, meaning current DACA recipients won’t lose their protections yet.

In a statement promising an appeal, Biden called the ruling “deeply disappointing,” warning it “relegates hundreds of thousands of young immigrants to an uncertain future.”

After the Biden administration appeals Hanen’s ruling, it will head to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has a fairly conservative reputation, including on immigration.

In 2015, a Fifth Circuit panel ruled 2–1 to uphold a decision by Hanen blocking Obama-era protections for undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens, arguing Congress didn’t authorize this kind of sweeping relief from deportation, and the court allowed Texas to ban “sanctuary city” laws in 2018.

While Hanen’s ruling is appealed, anybody who currently is enrolled in DACA will not lose their deportation relief and work permits, and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Saturday his agency will keep processing renewals (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says 616,030 people were enrolled in DACA as of March).

The government cannot grant DACA to new people whose applications hadn’t been approved as of Friday, leaving uncertainty for the 55,550 applicants who were still awaiting approval in March, partly due to severe processing delays linked to Covid-19.

Former President Barack Obama set up DACA in 2012 by executive order, offering deportation protection and work permits to undocumented immigrants who entered the United States illegally as children. The program applies to people who have lived in the U.S. since 2007, don’t have a serious criminal record and are either students, high school graduates or veterans. Hanen’s ruling — which argued DACA is illegal because it wasn’t authorized by Congress — follows years of legal challenges and attempts by the Trump administration to end DACA. Supporters have decried Hanen’s decision, arguing DACA enjoys bipartisan support and offers crucial protections to a group of people who largely didn’t choose to immigrate illegally and don’t pose a threat to the United States.

On Saturday, Biden renewed his push for Congress to pass a law offering permanent protections and a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. Both Democrats and Republicans have backed this idea in theory, but it’s failed to move through Congress for years. In a statement, Biden said “only Congress can ensure a permanent solution by granting a path to citizenship for Dreamers that will provide the certainty and stability that these young people need and deserve.”

Senate Democrats are reportedly considering rolling a DACA pathway to citizenship into a much larger spending bill. This strategy could be tricky: Republican support for this spending package is currently nonexistent, so Democrats hope to use the Senate’s reconciliation rules to pass the bill with just 51 votes instead of the usual 60, but reconciliation is normally only permitted for budget-related legislation, not bills on issues like immigration.

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