NEW ORLEANS — Attorneys hoping to save an Obama-era program that prevents the deportation of thousands of people brought into the U.S. as children told a federal appeals court Wednesday that ending the program would cruelly disrupt the lives of thousands who have grown up to become tax-paying, productive drivers of the U.S. economy.
An attorney for the state of Texas, leading an effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood arrivals program, argued that DACA recipients have cost the state hundreds of millions in health care and other costs.
The dueling views at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans were exchanged as more than 100 DACA supporters held signs, beat drums and chanted outside of the courthouse. They called for preservation of the program that protects more than 600,000 people from deportation, and a path to citizenship for immigrants.
"I am undocumented, and I will speak out today," said Woojung "Diana" Park, 22, of New York. She said she was brought to the U.S. as a 1-year-old from South Korea. DACA, she said, "is the bare minimum that the U.S. government has offered immigrant communities after decades of fighting for basic human rights."
A federal judge in Texas last year declared DACA illegal — although he agreed to leave the program intact for those already benefiting from it while his order is appealed.
The U.S. Justice Department defended the program, allied with the state of New Jersey, advocacy organizations such as the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and a coalition of dozens of powerful corporations — including Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft — which argue that DACA recipients are "employees, consumers and job creators."
Texas, joined by eight other Republican-leaning states, argues that DACA was enacted without going through proper legal and administrative procedures, including public notice and comment periods. Additionally, the states argue that they are harmed financially by allowing immigrants to remain in the country illegally.
DACA proponents argued that the program falls within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's power to prioritize enforcement. "DHS has limited resources," argued Brian Boynton of the Justice Department. "It's unable to remove 11 million people in the country. It has to decide who it's going to target first."
In court and in briefs, DACA backers have argued that Texas diminished its claims of financial injury by waiting six years to challenge the program. They also said the state ignores evidence that DACA recipients decrease Texas' costs because many of them hold jobs with health insurance benefits, own homes and pay property taxes that support schools.
In addition, they claimed that Texas hasn't shown DACA recipients would leave the state if the program were struck down. That point was met with skepticism by Judge James Ho, who noted that in a survey included with New Jersey's legal arguments, more than 20% of DACA recipients said they were likely to leave if the program were abolished.
Boynton argued that the respondents' answers were merely speculative and supporters of the program, in briefs, have questioned the methodology of the survey. But Ho again questioned whether the responses should be dismissed.
"This is a question about, literally, your entire life," Ho told Boynton. "This is a pretty profound question to get wrong."
Judd Stone, arguing for the state of Texas, said the state has shown that it expends millions of dollars on DACA recipients and that the end of the program would lead to some of those who receive that money leaving the state. "There is no evidence showing that either of those numbers are zero," Stone said.
In court briefs and in news conferences in New Orleans and South Carolina on Wednesday, DACA supporters pressed the argument that ending DACA would have devastating consequences for immigrants who have only known the United States as their home.
"I'm a father of a 10-year-old, so getting DACA rescinded would put me in limbo of not knowing if I'm going to take my son to his next football game," Yahel Flores, a DACA recipient and the Carolinas state director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, told reporters on a Zoom call.
In a court brief, DACA supporters said program beneficiaries "are parents of over a quarter-million U.S. citizens, and 70% of DACA recipients have an immediate family member who is a U.S. citizen."
DACA has faced numerous court challenges since then-President Barack Obama created it by executive order in 2012. Former President Donald Trump moved to end the program. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision determined that he had not done it properly, bringing it back to life and allowing for new applications. That was followed by the Texas-led lawsuit.
Assigned to hear arguments at the 5th Circuit were Chief Judge Priscilla Richman, an appointee of President George W. Bush; and two Trump appointees, Ho and Judge Kurt Engelhardt.