'The Right Side of History': Professor Robert C. Smith Reacts to the Supreme Court's DACA Decision

June 18, 2020

Smith, who wrote an amicus brief defending DACA in this case, talks about what the court's ruling means for a program that shields hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including many CUNY students, from deportation.

Professor Robert C. Smith
Professor Robert C. Smith

In a highly anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration may not immediately follow through on its effort terminate DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that shields at least 700,000 people brought to the United States as children from being deported.

The decision, although narrow, was welcome news to hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients, who include students at CUNY. Professor Robert C. Smith (GC/Baruch; Sociology/Sociology, Immigration Studies, and Public Affairs) has long studied the effects of DACA. He was the lead writer of an amicus brief supporting DACA in this case.

Smith spoke to The Graduate Center about today’s ruling and its ramifications.

The Graduate Center: What have the past few weeks been like for you, and how are you feeling right now?

Smith: We have been getting calls from DACA recipients all year, but especially in the last few weeks. People in our study want to know if DACA will be ended or not. It has affected them a great deal. Some were waiting to decide on whether to go to college or return to college based on what the Supreme Court ruled in this case. Given all the stress young people face, the uncertainty about whether you could still work legally with DACA was hard for them. (And the pandemic on top of that!)

Having worked on this issue for years, and having had the chance to do the Amici Brief of Empirical Scholars last fall for the November 2019 SCOTUS case, I have been waking up nights thinking about this. I am so glad the ruling went the right way! And fell on the right side of history.   

GC: What does today’s ruling mean for the immigrants that you have long studied and advocated for?

Smith: For DACA recipients, today’s ruling means that the current administration cannot abruptly end DACA, as they tried to do, and so the program must continue. Current DACA recipients can continue to renew. This ruling only protects those who have DACA. It does not reopen the DACA program because that question was not before the Supreme Court. The question was only: Could the administration end DACA the way it did? And the answer was: No, the way it ended DACA violated the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires more and better explanation than was offered, and consideration of the interests of those who had come to rely on DACA, among other things.

GC: What is DACA’s impact on this country? 

Smith: DACA has had a huge and positive impact on a generation of young people in this country. As ours and others’ amici briefs showed, DACA recipients earn more money and get better jobs, and are more able to go to college help their families financially. Moreover, they and their children, who are mostly U.S. citizens, are less plagued by the chronic stress of being undocumented and “deportable” in everyday life. My study has kids who cry every time they see a police officer, fearing they will take their mom. One mother found her 10-year-old praying under a blanket when she arrived home later than she had said. The poor kid feared ICE had taken his mom.    

DACA covered a lot of people. Over 820,000 people got DACA, and nearly all of them lived with immediate family members, usually in mixed status families, meaning there could be an undocumented parent, a DACA recipient, and U.S. citizen siblings. But there is more need. Demographers estimated there were several million DACA-eligible people, so many eligible people did not or could not apply. There is still a lot of work to do to put this situation right.

GC: What do you think might happen next? Is the Trump administration likely to try to end this program again, given that it was a 5-4 ruling, with only Chief Justice Roberts joining the more liberal judges?

Smith: There could be more litigation from either side because this case only settled the question of whether the administration could end DACA the way it did.

It is interesting that case had several opinions that were concurring in part and dissenting in part. Chief Justice Roberts was the pivot.

GC: Have you heard from any of the Dreamers that you’ve worked with? If so, how are they reacting to today’s decision?

Smith: I have been on the phone all day celebrating! It is joyful. I actually called some of my study participants whose stories I used in the brief to celebrate. They are so relieved they won’t lose DACA now. 

GC: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Smith: While this is a great day, to be celebrated, for sure, we must recognize that DACA was a partial fix to the what is a key civil rights issue facing our country today. America now has a country-sized population of undocumented people — 11 million, which would make it the 12th largest country in Europe. Indeed, it has a country-sized population of children who had an undocumented parent – 5 million, 4 million of whom, are U.S. citizens, about the size of Ireland or Norway. 

Long-term undocumented status harms immigrant families, and especially immigrant children, most of whom are U.S. citizens. It harms these children’s ability to learn, creates chronic stress, and makes them afraid of the police, because a key cause of family separation in the U.S. is traffic stops. America can and must do better. And most Americans want a better, fairer, path forward for Dreamers.