Trump administration officials said during a federal court hearing on Friday that they have not “granted nor rejected” any applications for a programme designed to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation, but rather have put them “on hold” as the government discusses the future of the programme.
The virtual hearing in the US District Court in Maryland was the first time the administration addressed reports that the Department of Homeland Security was not accepting applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme – despite a recent Supreme Court ruling and a federal judge's order requiring the government to resume accepting applications.
“Although the applications will be received by the department, they will be neither granted nor rejected, and instead will be held, placed into a bucket pending a policy consideration that takes place and that now I can tell you is still ongoing at the department,” said Stephen Pezzi, a lawyer with the Justice Department.
Mr Pezzi also said that “some or all” of the applications from DACA beneficiaries looking to leave the country and return lawfully had been wrongly rejected when they should have been held.
“Going forward, in just the last few hours, it has been straightened out at least prospectively such that any request for DACA-based advance parole will also be held in the pending bucket,” Mr Pezzi said.
US District Judge Paul Grimm, who ordered last week that the government comply with court directives to restore the DACA programme, ruled on Friday that the Trump administration must clarify the programme's status to the public within 30 days. He instructed Mr Pezzi to confirm by next Friday whether the government could commit to updating its US Citizenship and Immigration Services website and sending receipts to DACA applicants who are confused about whether their applications have been processed.
Mr Grimm also instructed the plaintiffs and defendants to propose a schedule for a briefing on whether the government should be held in contempt.
The hearing was the latest in drawn-out legal battles that began in 2017 with a flurry of lawsuits challenging the Trump administration plan to end DACA. One of the challenges came out of Maryland, with the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland suing.
Since the Supreme Court's ruling in June blocking the administration's bid to end DACA in a proceeding separate from the Maryland case, government transparency has been a primary concern of immigration advocates and lawyers. For weeks after the ruling, the USCIS website said the government was not accepting further DACA applications, putting the administration in conflict with court orders to restore the programme. The website was recently updated to acknowledge that the information is out of date.
Mr Pezzi acknowledged that the website had “outdated and inaccurate information” about the status of the DACA programme and said he had pressed the administration to fix it expeditiously.
“In a circumstance where the agency has not found the time or resources to change their website to accurately reflect what the status is, it is probably not the greatest degree of reassurance to the plaintiffs [about] a timeline for the decision on the new policy,” Mr Grimm said. He added that the inaccurate website information “fuels a belief by the plaintiffs that something is underlying this failure to process the claims, and the delays in consideration are being done for an ulterior motive”.
Plaintiffs in a 2017 case brought by CASA submitted a letter to Mr Grimm this month outlining their frustration with what they described as the government's slow and opaque reaction to two decisions by the Supreme Court: the high court's blocking of Mr Trump's bid to end DACA and its separate decision on 29 June that dismissed the government's appeal in the CASA challenge, which plaintiffs won last year in the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
CASA's letter stressed that many of those it represents had been waiting years for the chance to apply to the DACA programme or to be able safely to leave the country to see elderly relatives.
“Nobody knows what is going on, and it reinforces the impression ... that the defendants are not complying with the rule of law,” lawyer for the plaintiffs John Freedman said at the hearing.
The hearing on Friday in US District Court in Maryland was part of the fallout from the Supreme Court's decision in June, which surprised immigration advocates and angered Mr Trump. Under the Supreme Court action and Mr Grimm's orders, the Department of Homeland Security and Citizenship and Immigration Services must accept new applications and return to the Obama-era guidance that forbids the government from sharing information about DACA applicants with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Over the past month, there has been mounting public pressure for the Trump administration to be made to comply with the latest court directives.
“Your Administration's refusal to carry out the court's directive is an illegal usurpation of authority in violation of the separation of powers,” said a 24 July letter to Mr Trump written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, and Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-California, the chair of the judiciary subcommittee on immigration and citizenship.
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