Inderkum High School graduate Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn was studying inside his Boston apartment late Tuesday night when he received unexpected news: He’d just won a major legal victory against President Donald Trump.
“I was literally shaking for about two hours,” said the 28-year-old, who is taking a break in his final year of medical school at University of California, San Francisco, to earn a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. “It was a rush, of excitement, of some hesitation ... realizing again that there is hope.”
Latthivongskorn was one of five dreamers – young people brought as children into the United States illegally by their parents – who sued the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security last fall after the agency announced it was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which gave him and other so-called Dreamers legal status to live and work in the United States. The California courts joined his case with four similar DACA lawsuits, including one filed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on behalf of the state.
The lawsuits charge that Homeland Security didn’t have the authority to end the immigration program, which was started by President Barack Obama, and that the federal government violated due process by granting legal status to Dreamers and then summarily canceling it.
Around 11 p.m. Tuesday, Latthivongskorn received a phone call from an undocumented friend telling him that U.S. District judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California had issued a preliminary injunction in the case that temporarily ordered the government to bring the DACA program back nationally and process renewal applications.
“This is a huge step forward, but the fight is not over,” Becerra said during a Wednesday press conference. “Today is a good day for fairness. It’s a good day for the rule of law. It’s a good day for California.”
There are currently about 689,800 people enrolled in DACA, according to court documents, and about 200,000 Californians currently with the status, including an estimated 4,000 enrolled across the University of California system. About 5,900 of these DACA recipients live in the Sacramento area.
Since the program stopped processing applications in September, more than 10,000 Dreamers have lost their legal status, according to federal immigration statistics.
The court order means the government must allow DACA recipients to renew their status, including those whose status has expired since the wind-down began. The government had stopped accepting renewal applications in September. At that time, there were about 154,000 Dreamers nationwide who fell into the renewal category.
The order also likely allows those people to continue to obtain work permits and legally have jobs in the United States, a key concern for Latthivongskorn. Though currently in school, he said he would be unable to do his residency to finish his medical degree without a work permit.
Latthivongskorn was 9 when his parents brought him to Milpitas from Bangkok, where he was born. While he initially thought it was temporary, his parents soon told him and his two siblings they intended to stay “in search of the American dream,” he said.
His parents found work in restaurants, but encouraged him to focus on school.
“They would work long hours, seven days a week. I could remember all the smells of food when they came home in their aprons, and asking them if there was anything I could do to help,” he said.
They would tell him “to focus on school. That is the reason we all moved here, the hope that education would be the key to success, and that’s what I did.”
If DACA ends without a pathway to citizenship, Latthivongskorn said he worries his years of school will lead nowhere.
“If things go as they are now in DACA, there is nothing to replace it,” he said. He, and about 100 other undocumented medical students he knows of, “won’t be able to enter into residency, let alone complete it, and that’s a real question mark right now.”
While Tuesday’s injunction was hailed by immigration advocates, many tempered their response with a reminder that permanent legal status was the end goal for Dreamers.
It is also unclear how long the injunction will last. Federal lawyers have the right to immediately appeal that decision, which is likely.
The Justice Department “will continue to vigorously defend this position, and looks forward to vindicating its position in further litigation,” said Department of Justice spokesman Devin O’Malley in a statement.
The “order doesn’t change the Department of Justice’s position on the facts: DACA was implemented unilaterally after Congress declined to extend these benefits to this same group of illegal aliens. As such, it was an unlawful circumvention of Congress. ... The Department of Homeland Security therefore acted within its lawful authority in deciding to wind down DACA in an orderly manner,” said O’Malley.
This position put the focus squarely on Congress on Wednesday.
“Quite honestly, with this particular court victory, which is only temporary, the real question now turns to the Congress and the president,” Becerra said. “Will they act?”
The answer will likely come by next week, though Wednesday much debate centered on whether the injunction would help or hurt a deal.
On Tuesday, prior to the injunction being announced, Trump held a televised meeting with members of Congress on the issue. During the hour in which press was allowed to observe the meeting, Trump signaled a willingness to pass legislation to preserve DACA, but said he would rely on Congress to work out the details. Congressional Democrats and some Republicans have tied a DACA resolution to the upcoming federal spending bill required to keep government open. The deadline to pass that bill is January 19.
Trump has also spoken in the past in favor of allowing Dreamers to stay in the country.
Alsup, the judge, used the president’s words to support the notion that public interest was best served by protecting the program with the injunction. In his decision, he quoted a September post on Twitter from Trump in support of DACA, in which the president wrote, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some servicing in the military? Really!”
But the details of a dreamer deal are complex and contested, and have made consensus elusive for legislators.
Issues such as funding for a border wall, merit-based immigration rules and ending “chain migration” which allows immigrants to sponsor family members, have all been discussed as part of a DACA deal.
Most Democrats would like to see a “clean” DACA bill that addresses only the narrow issue of the fate of dreamers, a position California Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushed for during Tuesday’s meeting, and which momentarily seemed to have Trump’s support before Republicans steered him toward including his previous position of requiring broader immigration changes as part of a DACA resolution.
Standing inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, Auburn resident Tomas Evangelista, also a Dreamer, said he was excited about the judge’s ruling and the “energy” he felt in Washington, D.C., around the issue.
Evangelista is one of a contingent of DACA recipients, including four others from Northern California, who went to Washington, D.C., this week to push for a path to citizenship for Dreamers. He has met with legislators on both sides of the aisle, including GOP Rep. Tom McClintock, who is his representative. Evangelista said he decided to speak up about his immigration status after a town hall meeting last year in Roseville in which McClintock told a local dreamer she should return to her country of origin before seeking citizenship.
Evangelista came to the United States when he was 2 years old, and moved to Auburn to live with his grandparents after his mother became ill and subsequently died from cancer. Now 27, he obtained DACA status when he was a junior at California State University, Stanislaus.
“I signed up as soon as I could and I was accepted,” he said. “It meant the world. ... It was peace of mind that you are able to be part of this country.”
Like Latthivongskorn, he now feels the uncertainty of temporary status. A mental health and homeless outreach coordinator for a nonprofit, he has spent all his free time in recent months pushing McClintock and other local legislators to find a way to allow him and others like him to become citizens.
“History is being made right now,” he said. “This country is ready for a resolution.”