For 5.2 million undocumented immigrants, a Supreme Court ruling will do little for the uncertainty

A woman stands in front of the doors of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services offices in New York.

More than 5 million people are awaiting a Supreme Court decision that could give them a temporary reprieve from deportation and permission to work legally in the US.

In November 2014, amid stalled negotiations over immigration reform in Congress, President Barack Obama announced he would take executive action to expand protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants brought here as children and the undocumented parents of US citizens. But the programs have been stalled after being blocked by lawsuits courts. Now the Supreme Court will review the case, United States v. Texas, and is expected to make a decision in June, about seven months before Obama's term ends next January.

While lower court rulings hinged mostly on technical aspects of the program, the Supreme Court justices have asked the parties to also explain why or why not this program is constitutional.

The existing program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), provides work permits and three-year reprieves from deportation for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children and are now under the age of 35. This version of DACA is still in effect and an individual's status can be renewed every three years.

The executive action being challenged would expand DACA to include undocumented immigrants of any age who arrived as children and have lived in the US continuously since 2010, as well as to the undocumented parents of US citizens (called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans or DAPA). It is a discretionary program, meaning eligibility does not guarantee acceptance and there is no appeal if you are denied DACA or DAPA status.

Michael Fix, president of the Migration Policy Institute, says 1.2 million people were eligible for the original version of DACA, and 800,000 signed up when the program began in 2012. If the court rules in the Obama administration's favor, an additional 290,000 would become eligible for DACA and 3.7 million undocumented parents would benefit from DAPA. In all, 5.2 million undocumented immigrants and their families have a stake in this decision.

Migraton Policy Institute infographic on DACA and DAPA eligibility

That's a lot of people to process in a short window of time, before the Obama administration leaves office. And the next president could end the program upon taking office.

All three Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley — have expressed their support for DACA and DAPA. Leading Republican candidates have mostly vowed to end the programs. While Donald Trump has called for mass deportations, Jeb Bush has vowed to end DACA and DAPA but also has, at times, advocated for a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey signed onto the brief asking the courts to stop Obama's program. Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz have also said they would end the program.

"This is a narrow window, presuming the court rules in June and administration kicks into high gear immediately," says Fix.

Looking back to 2012, it takes time for these programs to go into effect. Thirty-five percent of all DACA enrollees did so in the first three months. More than 50 percent were enrolled within seven months.

"There are a lot of unknowns, obviously," says Fix. The political rhetoric of presidential campaigning could affect whether undocumented immigrants come forward. There is also a question about administrative capacity to process many applications in a short period of time.

And for advocates, that presents many challenges. Those eligible for the expanded DACA and DAPA programs are waiting for an uncertain court decision, a short period of time in which they could potentially apply for a temporary and discretionary program, which could be shut down by a new administration.

Alida Garcia of, which advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and applauds the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case, says they will support the program anyway.

"We are totally clear that both the 2012 DACA program and the 2014 DACA and DAPA program are a temporary fix," says Garcia. "It is not the end goal. The end goal is a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people."

Bringing more people out of the shadows, even with uncertainties, she says, has helped move the issue of immigration reform forward.

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