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600,000 DACA recipients wait in limbo as a court considers the program's future

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We begin this hour in Houston, where a federal judge heard arguments again today about the future of DACA. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program gives temporary legal protection to immigrants who were brought to the country as children - including 30-year-old Susana Lujano and her husband. She spoke to Houston Public Media outside the courtroom.

SUSANA LUJANO: We've been in Houston for almost 30 years, so it just seems a little bit strange that we have to fight so hard for just, like, the most basic of our rights, which is to live without fear of being pulled away from our homes and our families and to be able to work. We have a 1-year-old. We want to provide for him. We want to be able to just live in peace, really.

SUMMERS: Texas leads a group of states challenging the Obama-era policy which they argue is illegal. That's left Lujano and nearly 600,000 other DACA recipients in limbo as the case plays out. For more, we turn now to NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration. And Joel, tell us what happened in the court today.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Yeah, roughly three hours of oral argument before U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen. The judge already knows this case well. It has been going on since 2018. Hanen has ruled once before that DACA is unlawful. That was nearly two years ago. The Biden administration appealed that ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which mostly agreed with the judge's ruling, but sent the case back to him for more proceedings about a federal regulation that was published last year which was supposed to put DACA on firmer legal footing. And that's largely what the lawyers were arguing about today.

SUMMERS: OK, I mean, this begs the question - if Judge Hanen has already found DACA unlawful once before, is there any reason to think that he'll find a different conclusion this time?

ROSE: Well, DACA's defenders hope so. We heard arguments from the Justice Department. They argue that DACA is legal because it falls within the tradition of prosecutorial discretion. We also heard from immigrant advocates, who say Texas and the other states that are challenging DACA should not have standing in this case at all because they cannot prove any direct harms from DACA.

The states that are challenging the program disagree with that. They say there is nothing new here that should change Judge Hanen's mind. They argue DACA is still an illegal overreach by the executive branch and that the judge should rule against the program again.

SUMMERS: And what about the people at the heart of this? Where does this leave people with DACA protection?

ROSE: In limbo, like you said at the top - I mean, basically, DACA is frozen in place. It's not accepting new applications. There are just under 600,000 people who currently have DACA, many of them in their 30s and early 40s. They can continue to renew their status for now, and that protects them from deportation. It allows them to work legally. It's helped many of them go to college and grad school, to buy homes, to start businesses. All of that is in jeopardy if DACA is terminated. And I want to say also that there are hundreds of thousands of younger immigrants who don't have access to DACA at all because they were too young to qualify before the program was tied up in court, and now it is just not an option for them.

SUMMERS: Joel, when will we know more about the future of DACA?

ROSE: Well, Judge Hanen says he'll consider all the arguments and issue his ruling soon, though he gave no specific timeline about that. Further appeals are likely. I mean, this case is probably headed up to the Supreme Court, which has heard DACA cases before. Remember, the Trump administration tried to end the program, and the Supreme Court blocked that from happening. In a 5-4 decision, they found the Trump administration did not go about ending DACA the right way. But this is a different case. It's also a different Supreme Court that may ultimately have the final word.

SUMMERS: That was NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thank you.

ROSE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.