Does the March 5 DACA Deadline Still Matter? 5 Things to Know About the Countdown to a Meaningless Monday — and Why Dreamers Should Still Be Worried

DACA supporters protest the Trump administration’s termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Photo credit: Ronen Tivony/Getty Images)

All eyes have been on March 5 since the Trump administration announced last September that in six months it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has provided work permits and deportation relief to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

That timeline, the Trump administration announced last fall, would give lawmakers in Washington a chance to iron out a long-term immigration plan. But that legislative fix never came, and the futures of DACA recipients — thousands of whom are students, teachers, or the parents of children in K-12 classrooms — remain uncertain.

Unless lawmakers manage to squeeze out a deal in the next few days, some big questions come up as that Monday deadline quickly approaches. Like: Are the nearly 700,000 current DACA recipients about to lose their protections en masse — and face potential deportation? No, it’s not that simple.

Here, we answer five questions about the looming deadline, and what it means for DACA recipients, often called “Dreamers,” who currently receive benefits from the Obama-era program.

1 Where did the March 5 deadline originate?

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on September 5 that DACA would be eliminated, the Trump administration said it would leave a six-month window open for Congress to find a legislative remedy. Although the administration stopped accepting new applicants for DACA benefits in September, it gave current recipients until October 5 to renew their status. DACA does not grant permanent legal status to recipients, who must renew their deferral every two years.

This strategy has allowed the Trump administration to push for the president’s immigration priorities, like increased enforcement and a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, in exchange for a long-term DACA solution like the Dream Act. Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have accused Trump of using DACA recipients as “bargaining chips.”

2 Why did courts halt the DACA repeal?

The president’s decision to end the DACA program faced a wave of lawsuits, and in two states — California and New York — federal judges have handed sizable blows to the administration.

The first Trump setback came on January 9, when a federal district court judge in California, William Alsup, issued a temporary injunction against the administration’s decision to wind down DACA. Alsup ordered the Trump administration to “maintain the DACA program on a nationwide basis” until pending lawsuits work their way through the courts. In compliance with that order, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on January 13 it would once again accept DACA renewal applications.

To be eligible for DACA benefits, immigrants had to be younger than 16 when they moved to the U.S., they had to be 31 or younger in 2012, and they had to have lived continuously in the U.S. since 2007. They also had to be a current student or a high school graduate without a criminal conviction.

Among the plaintiffs suing the Trump administration over the move to repeal DACA are the University of California system and its president, Janet Napolitano, who, as Homeland Security secretary under President Barack Obama, created the program in 2012. Plaintiffs in another California lawsuit include Los Angeles teacher Miriam Gonzalez Avila, who told her students at Crown Preparatory Academy she wouldn’t let DACA die without putting up a fight.

A second federal district judge, Nicholas Garaufis of New York, reached a similar decision on February 13, when he issued a second nationwide temporary injunction ordering the administration to keep DACA benefits in place for now. In order to enforce its own March 5 deadline, the Trump administration would have to successfully appeal both injunctions. The Ninth Circuit has jurisdiction in California; the Second Circuit has jurisdiction in New York. The Trump administration has already appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which has put the issue on a fast track.

In reaching a decision, the California judge cited several tweets and television interviews in which Trump appeared to favor DACA protections. The president’s own statements, the judge wrote, indicate that the program’s continuation is in the public interest.

Meanwhile in New York, Garaufis noted that the president’s DACA rollback deadline was arbitrary. Although he didn’t mention the president’s Twitter feed in his opinion, the judge said in court he couldn’t ignore the “drumbeat” of Trump’s “vicious” anti-immigrant rhetoric.

3 Why did the Supreme Court get involved?

A day after the California injunction was released, Trump tweeted his disdain, criticizing the U.S. court system as “broken and unfair.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, meanwhile, said the California injunction “defies both law and common sense” because of its national reach. As such, the administration, in a rare move, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the DACA debate, with the goal of skipping the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Trump administration highlighted a need for urgency, noting that “even expedited proceedings in the Ninth Circuit would entail many months of delay.”

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected the Trump administration’s request, urging the appeals court to “proceed expeditiously to decide this case.” But the American judicial system isn’t typically known for speed, and that appeal will likely take months. Vox’s headline: The Supreme Court may have just kept DACA on life support for several more months.

“Nothing is as bad as the Ninth Circuit,” Trump said after the Supreme Court decision was announced. Trump’s comments highlighted his desire to skip the appeals court, criticized by conservatives as overly liberal, for the nation’s top court, where the administration may see a better chance of victory.

“I mean, it’s really sad when every single case filed against us is in the Ninth Circuit we lose, we lose, we lose, and then we do fine in the Supreme Court,” Trump said.

4 Where do legislative attempts to replace DACA stand on Capitol Hill?

The debate over immigration reform in Washington has been in a stalemate for well over a decade, and, at the end of the day, the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA failed to change much politically. Despite months of wrangling in Congress — and a host of emotional appeals over the devastating impact of deporting people from the only country many have ever known — it’s highly unlikely lawmakers will reach a legislative fix ahead of the Monday deadline.

Lawmakers just returned to work Monday after a weeklong recess, leaving them little time to hash out a deal. Another highly contentious issue — gun control — has taken center stage in Congress and in the larger, national conversation.

Because of the court injunctions, some lawmakers have acknowledged less urgency around the March 5 line in the sand. Although it’s important, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “it’s not as important as it was before, given the court rulings.” He did say, however, that he hopes lawmakers can reach a deal at some point in March because “this place works better with deadlines.”

It’s possible that lawmakers will choose instead to wait out a court decision until after the midterm elections in November. Rep. John Larson, a Connecticut Democrat, predicted that “we’ll kick the can down the road” until then.

5 What is the current status of DACA recipients?

The fate of DACA recipients hangs in the balance as lawmakers continue to face off and lawsuits make their way through the courts. Following the injunction in California, the Trump administration began accepting renewal applications again in January, but for many, it’s likely too late. Because applications can take months to process, some recipients will experience a lapse in DACA protections.

Meanwhile, thousands of DACA recipients have already lost their work permits and deportation relief because roughly 22,000 people did not apply for renewals in time. These people are also now eligible to submit renewal applications because of the court injunctions, but some people have struggled to come with the $495 for the application fee on short notice.

As immigration enforcement efforts ramp up — including in “sanctuary cities” like Los Angeles — the Trump administration has said it won’t explicitly target immigrants with expired DACA benefits. That doesn’t mean they aren’t at risk of potential enforcement; several people experiencing a lapse in benefits have already been detained.

Had the March 5 deadline carried any weight, recipients would not have lost their benefits all at once. Instead, recipients would have been unable to renew their two-year deferred action. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates that about 915 DACA recipients would have lost their status every day over the next two years.

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