WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday to review a federal judge's order that the Trump administration continue a program protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
The denial leaves in place the popular DACA program, which has protected some 690,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation and enabled them to get work permits.
The program had faced a March 5 deadline for congressional action set by Trump last summer. Two federal courts have ruled the administration's action was illegal.
The justices could have agreed to hear the case this spring, leapfrogging a federal appeals court based in California that has been sympathetic to the cause of immigrants. They also could have overruled federal District Judge William Alsup without a hearing.
Instead, they simply allowed the case to run its normal course through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
"It is assumed that the Court of Appeals will proceed expeditiously to decide this case," the justices said in denying the Trump administration's petition. The case still could come to the high court in the future.
The action represents a temporary victory for the young adults brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents or guardians under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program established by President Barack Obama in 2012. And it represents a major setback for the Trump administration, which vowed to continue the legal battle in the lower courts.
"We will continue to defend DHS’ lawful authority to wind down DACA in an orderly manner," Department of Justice spokesman Devin O'Malley said in a statement Monday.
Trump said during remarks before a meeting with governors Monday that "we'll see what happens. That's my attitude."
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led one of the lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s termination of DACA, said Monday’s decision by the high court will provide much-needed relief to DACA enrollees, the companies they work for and the schools they attend.
“DACA is fully legal," Becerra said. “The Trump administration’s attempts to end it were fully illegal. And we hope that this has become clearer at each step of the way.”
The dispute dates back to 2012, when Obama established the program without congressional action. The goal was to protect from deportation undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, but many Republicans called it executive overreach and have remained opposed to the program.
Trump vowed to end the program on the campaign trail, but seemed to change his mind after winning election. He went back and forth over the future of DACA during his first months in office, but made his decision in September: he announced that the program would end, but not until March 5, giving Congress six months to find a solution.
Democrats and Republicans have been squabbling over the fate of those so-called DREAMers ever since. Democrats want the program left alone or made permanent through a new law; Republicans, with Trump's backing, have demanded other immigration enforcement and border security enhancements in exchange, including an expansion of the wall along the Mexican border.
The negotiations have been tense, even leading to a three-day government shutdown in January as Democrats briefly demanded a DACA solution as part of a spending bill.
But now that the Supreme Court has decided not to fast-track the legal battle, the program will continue allowing DACA recipients to renew their protections. That eliminates the deadline faced by Congress.
The case now goes back to the 9th Circuit, which must consider the ruling from Alsup that preserved DACA.
In his ruling last month, Alsup granted a request by California, the University of California system, and several California cities to block Trump's decision to end the DACA program while their lawsuit challenging the program's termination plays out in court. He said those already approved for protection and work permits must be allowed to renew them before they expire.
Alsup said the challengers were likely to succeed by claiming that the Trump administration's decision to end the program was "arbitrary and capricious" and based on a flawed legal premise. He said the plaintiffs would be harmed, in part through economic disruptions and the loss of tax revenue caused by the DREAMers' change in status.
Earlier this month, federal District Judge Nicholas Garaufis issued a similar ruling in New York. He said the administration was wrong for several reasons, such as its premise that Obama's creation of the program was unconstitutional and illegal in the first place.
"Any of these flaws would support invalidating the DACA rescission as arbitrary and capricious," Garaufis ruled.