SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A federal appeals court ruled in San Francisco Thursday that President Donald Trump's administration must keep a program protecting undocumented young immigrants from deportation in place for the time being.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge William Alsup in January that blocked the administration's decision last year to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
DACA, established by President Barack Obama in 2012, has enabled nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, known as Dreamers, to apply for renewable two-year work permits and postponements of deportation.
Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote that the Trump Administration's action was "arbitrary and capricious" because it was based on an mistaken conclusion by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the program was illegal to begin with.
Sessions told then-Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke in a letter on Sept. 4, 2017, that the previous administration did not have the authority to establish DACA. Duke ordered a phased termination of the program the next day.
In fact, Wardlaw said, "DACA was a permissible exercise of executive discretion."
She said deferred action of various types "has been a feature of our immigration system" for decades and "has been recognized as a practical reality by both Congress and the courts."
The court ruled in five lawsuits that were filed by entities including the University of California and the state of California and were handled jointly in Alsup's court.
The university, which filed the first of the cases, said in a statement, "Today's decision is yet another strong message from our nation's courts that the government's attempt to rescind DACA was unlawful.
"The government's only justification for rescinding DACA - that the program itself is legally flawed - is unfounded. Now that the appellate court has definitively rejected this argument, the university calls on the administration to stop its efforts to rescind the program," UC said.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led a lawsuit joined by Maine, Maryland and Minnesota, called the decision "a tremendous victory for our young immigrant Dreamers and the rule of law."
The U.S. Justice Department has already appealed Alsup's ruling to the Supreme Court.
On Monday, the department filed an unusual petition asking the high court to take up the case without waiting for the 9th Circuit's decision, citing a need to obtain an "appropriately prompt resolution of this important dispute" during the court's current term, which ends in June.
Spokespersons were not immediately available to comment on whether the Justice Department will now keep that petition in place or replace it with a normal appeal of the 9th Circuit decision.
The other lawsuits ruled on by the 9th Circuit were filed by the city of San Jose; six individuals; and Santa Clara County together with the Service Employees International Union.
Several similar lawsuits challenging the DACA termination have been filed in other federal courts around the country. In two cases, preliminary injunctions by U.S. district judges in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., are being appealed by the government to the 2nd and 4th Circuit Courts of Appeal.
The 9th Circuit was the first appeals court to rule in the cases. The Justice Department on Monday asked the Supreme Court to bypass the other two circuits and take up the other cases immediately as well.
If the 9th Circuit decision is upheld by the Supreme Court, the preliminary injunction will remain in effect until a full trial is held in Alsup's court.
All three judges on the 9th Circuit panel voted to uphold the injunction in a 99-page decision. Judge Jacqueline Nguyen joined Wardlaw's reasoning that the DACA termination was based on a mistake of law.
In a concurrence, Judge John Owens based his decision on a different argument by the plaintiff groups - a claim that the Trump administration's action violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection because it was aimed at people of Mexican and Latino heritage, who account for 93 percent of DACA recipients.
Owens said the plaintiffs had "some likelihood of success" that they might win that argument. Wardlaw and Nguyen also agreed the groups should be allowed to pursue that claim in future proceedings.
Wardlaw said in the majority decision that deferment was within the executive branch's authority to prioritize enforcement resources.
She wrote, "In a world where the government can remove only a small percentage of the undocumented noncitizens present in this country in any year, deferred action programs like DACA enable DHS to devote much-needed resources to enforcement priorities such as threats to national security, rather than blameless and economically productive young people with clean criminal records."
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