Updated at 3:44 p.m. ET
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed the Trump administration a setback over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.
The court declined to take up a key case dealing with the Obama-era DACA — for now.
The high court said an appeals court should hear the case first. The result is DACA will stay in place until or if the Supreme Court takes it up.
The Trump administration tried to skip the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California and go directly to the Supreme Court. (The 9th Circuit is famously liberal-leaning.)
Two lower courts blocked the government from ending the DACA program. Trump had wanted to start ending the DACA protections in March for people brought to the U.S. as children and living in the country illegally.
The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits or even indicate which way it would lean on the DACA program. This was all about the legal process.
The ruling means continued uncertainty for a program set to expire one week from now. When Trump rescinded Obama's DACA executive order, he gave it an expiration date of six months.
He said he hoped that could buy time for a bipartisan solution to emerge between Congress and the White House, but at this point, they're at a stalemate.
Congress hasn't been able to come up with a legislative solution that the president finds acceptable, leaving these DREAMers with a lot questions that don't have any immediate or easy answers.
The ruling also comes on the day Congress is back. That may serve to shine a spotlight on the legislators.
The president has been tweeting that Democrats don't want to do anything on the immigration program, which indicates wanting to lay blame more than passing a solution.
Trump had said he would support anything that had bipartisan support, but he has declined several different versions of that because they didn't satisfy his four pillars — giving the almost 2 million DREAMers citizenship in exchange for limiting what he calls chain migration (and Democrats call family reunification), ending the visa lottery program and funding his wall.
Under current law, those given citizenship can apply for their parents, children and siblings to be legalized as well. Conservatives see a moral problem with allowing the very parents who brought the children into the country to be granted legal status.
The legal battle over DACA and next week's deadline have all added layers of confusion of what it all means for DACA recipients and DREAMers.
And it all could drag on for another year.
"The case is critical to the DREAMers and Trump's March 5 deadline, which is now on hold, perhaps for a year," noted Carl Tobias, a constitutional lawyer at the University of Richmond.
He points out that the appeals courts could rule by this summer and then the Supreme Court would "probably not rule until next year."
Of course, Congress could fix it. "But the week that the Senate spent trying to do so was not very promising in terms of a legislative fix," Tobias said.
The White House has said that through this process DACA recipients and DREAMers are not a priority for deportation.
The Immigration, Customs and Enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security told NPR it remains focused on those who have committed crimes.
"We continue to focus our enforcement resources on those who pose a threat to national security, public safety or border security," Sarah Rodriguez, deputy press secretary at ICE, told NPR in an email. "ICE typically arrests those who have/had Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), if DACA has been terminated, the individual is engaged in criminal activity, has gang affiliation, has been determined to pose a public safety risk, there has been some other violation of the program requirements, or if the period of deferred action expired."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is responsible for approval and extension of DACA status. It did not immediately respond to requests for comment or updated guidance, but it issued new guidance Feb. 14, a day after a second federal court order that blocked the Trump administration's rescission of DACA.
"USCIS is not accepting requests from individuals who have never before been granted deferred action under DACA," it wrote, but "due to federal court orders on Jan. 9, 2018 and Feb. 13, 2018, USCIS has resumed accepting requests to renew a grant of deferred action under DACA."
In a written statement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra called the Trump administration's attempt to bypass the 9th Circuit "unusual and unnecessary." He added, "We look forward to explaining to the 9th Circuit court that DACA is fully legal."
He told NPR that this was a "clear victory for DREAMers" and contended that now "March 5 is just a day on the calendar." He also encouraged DREAMers who haven't signed up for DACA protections to do so quickly — and he encouraged Democrats and Republicans alike to pass a clean DREAM Act.
"Don't hold DREAMers hostage for wrongful positions," Becerra said, referring to the exchange Trump is looking for rather than simply giving DREAMers citizenship. He said those other items should be left for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
The White House, on the other hand, said Monday it was confident it would win eventually.
"The DACA program — which provides work permits and myriad government benefits to illegal immigrants en masse — is clearly unlawful," White House spokesman Raj Shah said, per AP. "The district judge's decision to unilaterally reimpose a program that Congress had explicitly and repeatedly rejected is a usurpation of legislative authority."
He added, "We look forward to having this case expeditiously heard by the appeals court and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, where we fully expect to prevail."