The Supreme Court said on Monday that it will stay out of the dispute concerning the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for now, meaning the Trump administration may not be able to end the program March 5 as planned.
The move will also lessen pressure on Congress to act on a permanent solution for DACA and its roughly 700,000 participants -- undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children.
Lawmakers had often cited the March 5 deadline as their own deadline for action. But the Senate failed to advance any bill during a debate earlier this month, and no bipartisan measure has emerged since.
Originally, the Trump administration had terminated DACA but allowed a six-month grace period for anyone with status expiring in that window to renew. After that date, March 5, any DACA recipient whose status expired would no longer be able to receive protections.
Monday's action by the court, submitted without comment from the justices, is not a ruling on the merits of the DACA program or the Trump administration's effort to end it.
At issue is a ruling by federal District Judge William Alsup of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, who blocked the plan to end DACA and held that the Trump administration must resume accepting renewal applications. The action means the case will continue going through the lower courts.
Alsup said a nationwide injunction was "appropriate" because "our country has a strong interest in the uniform application of immigration law and policy."
"Plaintiffs have established injury that reaches beyond the geographical bounds of the Northern District of California. The problem affects every state and territory of the United States," he wrote.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has generally allowed nationwide injunctions against the Trump administration actions from lower court judges under this President to stand, meaning the DACA program could be spared a year or more until the Supreme Court could take up the case in next year's term, given the likely realities of the calendar.
The White House said it was disappointed in the ruling.
"The DACA program -- which provides work permits and myriad government benefits to illegal immigrants en masse -- is clearly unlawful," said spokesman Raj Shah. "The district judge's decision to unilaterally re-impose a program that Congress had explicitly and repeatedly rejected is a usurpation of legislative authority. The fact that this occurs at a time when elected representatives in Congress are actively debating this policy only underscores that the district judge has unwisely intervened in the legislative process."
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, one of the 17 challenging Trump's move to end DACA, called the ruling a "win," but added "it also does not change the fact that we need a permanent solution to preserve DACA and protect Dreamers."
Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley said the administration's appeal to the Supreme Court was an uphill climb, given it came before the 9th Circuit ruled.
"While we were hopeful for a different outcome, the Supreme Court very rarely grants certiorari before judgment, though in our view, it was warranted for the extraordinary injunction requiring the Department of Homeland Security to maintain DACA," O'Malley said. "We will continue to defend DHS's lawful authority to wind down DACA in an orderly manner."
University of Texas professor law and CNN legal analyst Stephen Vladeck said justices normally don't weigh in at this stage.
"The justices have not granted such a request since 2004, but the government claimed that the urgency of settling the legal status of DACA, and the potential for nationwide confusion, justified such an extraordinary measure," Vladeck said.