As Supreme Court takes up Trump plan to end DACA, American dreams at stake for nearly 700,000 immigrants

Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

AUSTIN, Texas – A lawyer, a teacher, a graduate student and an undergraduate gathered in a sixth-floor courtroom one recent afternoon to discuss their common dreams and nightmares. 

The dreams are of futures in the United States filled with college degrees and successful careers, home ownership and happy families. 

The nightmares are of losing their college loans, driver's licenses, jobs – and the only country they call home.

"It feels, in a way, very surreal," said Anayeli Marcos, 25, who hopes to graduate from the University of Texas' flagship campus here in May with dual master's degrees in social work and Latin American studies. "Sometimes it's a bit overwhelming, feeling that your fate is in the hands of people who don't know you."

The Supreme Court will have the fate of these four "Dreamers" and about 660,000 others in its hands Tuesday when it considers the Trump administration's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has provided a reprieve for some undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. A ruling on the DACA program is expected next spring in the midst of the 2020 presidential election.

What's DACA? DACA, "Dreamers," TPS? Who are they, what do they have to do with Trump, the wall and the shutdown?

In Austin, where Texas state officials brought the original challenge to both DACA and an ill-fated effort by President Barack Obama to extend similar protections to 4 million undocumented parents, Pedro Villalobos' job as an assistant county attorney is at risk.

Pedro Villalobos, 28, a Travis County prosecuting attorney at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center in Austin, Texas, is among the DACA recipients awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court.

The state argues in court papers that "Congress has never given the executive carte blanche to grant lawful presence to any alien it chooses not to remove, let alone benefits including work authorization, health care, unemployment, and a pathway to citizenship." 

Seated in a county courtroom he uses regularly to prosecute crime, Villalobos, 28, said a defeat at the Supreme Court "would end my service to this community." 

"I represent the state, but the state doesn't represent me," he said.

Karen Reyes, a pre-kindergarten special-education teacher, has timed her two-year DACA renewal to next year's Christmas holiday season so that if it isn't granted, the school system can replace her without interruption.

"We are living our lives two years at a time," Reyes, 31, said, despite the fact that "I have not even a parking ticket to my name."

Vanessa Rodriguez, the youngest of the group at 21, has put her plans beyond graduating from the University of Texas on hold because her work permit could disappear along with DACA.

"Part of being undocumented is knowing that you have to plan," she said. "Will I be able to fund myself through the next phase of my life?" 

Surgeons and Rhodes scholars

The three cases on the high court's docket, consolidated from among many others, are significant for several reasons:

• They represent a major separation-of-powers wrestling match between the executive and legislative branches of government. Obama created the program without input from Congress. With Texas leading the way, the Trump administration argues that was illegal.

"As attorney general, my purview is law and the Constitution," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in USA TODAY last year. "No president has the power to change the law simply because he is upset that Congress failed to enact his favored legislation. Such behavior is not only petulant and childish, but more importantly, it trashes the separation of powers, the very foundation of constitutional government."

• They constitute the third major immigration battle to reach the court in which the Trump administration has used shifting justifications for its actions. The court ultimately upheld President Donald Trump's travel ban against several majority-Muslim nations last year but blocked his effort this year to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

• They advance the Trump administration's effort to dismantle policies put in place by the Obama administration. The president has been unable to do away with the Affordable Care Act but was more successful in ending Obama's Clean Power Plan, his signature climate change policy.

• Even if Trump wins, the victories may be but a bargaining chip in negotiations with Congress, in which he could offer to extend DACA protections in exchange for increased funding for a border wall with Mexico.

But none of those reasons have attracted as much attention as the "Dreamers" themselves, many of whom came to America before they could walk or talk. About 80% of them are from Mexico. Nearly 10% more arrived from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Nearly 200,000 live in California, another 100,000 in Texas.

Included among them are Ivy League graduates and a Rhodes scholar from South Korea, an orthopedic surgeon and a Catholic priest. Apple alone employs 443 DACA recipients, including Kevin Gomez, a self-described technology geek.

Kevin Gomez, an Apple employee in Austin, Texas, is among those awaiting a decision on DACA from the Supreme Court.

"We are definitely not bad hombres," who come to the United States "to take away jobs or just live off of the government," Gomez said in an interview at Apple's Austin campus, referring to the more nefarious caricature of illegal immigrants.

'Life-changing implications'

Few cases come to the Supreme Court in which one side enjoys such lopsided support.

Nearly every federal court to consider the question has blocked the administration from ending the DACA program. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in California and a continuing thorn in Trump's side, ridiculed the effort to deport "blameless and economically productive young people with clean criminal records."

The Supreme Court's willingness to hear the case signals a potential win for the White House, but how it wins would be crucial. If the justices say Trump has the same discretion to end the program that Obama had in creating it, a future president just as easily could renew it. If they agree with the Justice Department that it's unlawful, Congress would have to step in.

Opposing the administration are lawyers representing California, New York, the District of Columbia and an array of "Dreamers." Nearly three dozen legal briefs have been submitted on their side by groups representing big business, educators, religious institutions, labor unions, law enforcement and national security, along with immigration and civil rights organizations.

"There is no dispute that this decision has life-changing implications for nearly 700,000 DACA participants and their families," the Regents of the University of California told the court.

Throughout the 2-year-old ordeal, the "Dreamers" have been their own best advocates. Scores of them set off two weeks ago to walk from New York City to Washington, D.C. Others are flying in from California, Texas and elsewhere to sit in court, demonstrate outside and lobby members of Congress.

Among them will be Diego Corzo, who came from Peru 20 years ago at age 9. Today he is an Austin-based realtor and investor with properties in three states and a TEDx talk titled "Can The American Dream Be Achieved If You're Not An American Citizen?"

Corzo vividly recalls Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement in 2017, when he said DACA "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs."

"That sentence stuck with me," Corzo, seated at a local Starbucks, said. "He said that I denied jobs to Americans. I said, 'No, my effort did.'"

Not all undocumented immigrants are waiting for the Supreme Court's decision. Olga Canastuj, 22, whose Guatemalan parents brought her from Mexico when she was 3, chose to be adopted by her uncle when he became a U.S. citizen. Now she has a green card and three part-time jobs mentoring preschoolers, running an after-school program and teaching online English courses.

Adoption "was the only solution" for herself and her older brother, Canastuj said over a lunch of tortillas and black beans. "DACA is very helpful, but we always look for something more." 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DACA: Supreme Court hears case on program that protects some Dreamers