STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Carlos Vargas arrived to the United States from Mexico when he was four years old.
Thirty years later, he has been a Staten Island resident for well over a decade and is now involved in a fight that has worked its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States.
An immigrant who received protection under the President Barack Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, Carlos saw his future placed on uncertain grounds when current President Donald Trump moved to end the program.
The Woodrow resident decided to take legal action and is listed as one of the plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case.
Now, awaiting a decision, which will likely come in June, Carlos said he is “hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”
‘IT’S BIGGER THAN MYSELF’
Carlos applied to DACA in 2012, the year the program, which protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as minors, began accepting applications.
Like other Staten Islanders — including health care workers — he is one of the over-32,000 DACA recipients in New York alone. Nationwide, there are currently around 700,000 DACA recipients, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrants Affairs.
In an effort to curtail illegal immigration, then-presidential candidate Trump promised to end the program, defining it as unconstitutional. More than one year into his presidency, Trump kept his campaign promise, officially announcing his intent to end program on Sept. 5, 2017.
A supervisor for Make the Road New York, an immigrant-led advocate organization, and a current law student at the City University of New York, Carlos said, “as an advocate, the only really viable option was for me to pursue this in the courts.”
Now — staring down the decision-making power of the high court — Carlos admitted that the process has been “a bit intimidating” being up against “an agency such as the Department of Homeland Security,” but noted that the fight is not only a personal one, but one that affects thousands of others.
For DACA recipients like Carlos, a decision approving the president’s push to eradicate the program could mean the expiration of protections and benefits the program offers — potentially taking away work permits and forcing individuals to leave the country they have called home since they were children.
The ultimate result of the decision is “unclear” to Carlos on an individual level, since his work permit technically expires in 2022, but he said the termination of DACA could mean his work privileges would “effective immediately, be terminated.”
“It could mean that I could lose my healthcare at a time of crisis,” he said. “It’s kind of like a roller coaster. I have bills like most Americans, and it could be financially, emotionally and legally difficult.”
Still, the broader perspective of the case’s implications has kept him centered on his goal.
“It’s not just about me, the plaintiffs,” he said, “it’s about what we represent as a community as a whole. I think we represent the Staten Island, the New York community, so I don’t feel like I’m there by myself as a plaintiff.”
“It’s bigger than myself. I’m there to really embrace and empower what it means to be a DACA recipient in New York City.”
THE SUPREME COURT CASE
The motions of the case currently being deliberated in the Supreme Court of the U.S. began in late 2017.
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on Sept. 4, of that year, articulating his legal determination that DACA “was effectuated by the previous administration through executive action, without proper statutory authority and with no established end-date, after Congress’ repeated rejection of proposed legislation that would have accomplished a similar result.”
“Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch,” he wrote.
Sessions, who has since been fired by Trump, said, “As Attorney General of the United States, I have a duty to defend the Constitution and to faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress. Proper enforcement of our immigration laws is, as President Trump consistently said, critical to the national interest and to the restoration of the rule of law in our country.”
Lower courts, however, found the decision of the Trump administration to cut the program to be “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act — the federal law that governs policymaking procedures.
Following that determination, the fate of DACA recipients became uncertain.
Carlos’ brother, Cesar Vargas, who is an immigration attorney, former DACA recipient and member of the U.S. Army Reserve, said that the manner in which the U.S. Supreme Court reaches its decision is nearly as important as the decision itself.
If the court determines the program should be abolished, or if — in the opposite direction — the Supreme Court justices decide the president did not have the legal authority to slash the program, “the court could say, ‘notwithstanding all those decisions, we say it’s not fair to the recipients and young people who have this, and therefore, you can terminate it but the program can continue until the last DACA authorization expires’.”
“There’s a whole range” of outcomes for the decision, Cesar said, with one end of the spectrum resulting in the program being “completely terminated,” where work permits — including the one his brother has — are nullified immediately.
Another option is for the work program to cease on a set date, regardless of when a DACA recipient’s work permit was slated to expire.
“In a really worst case scenario, Immigration [and] Customs Enforcement (ICE) can start proceedings against someone, especially if they have some type of criminal case or charge pending,” Cesar said.
Matthew Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, previously said that ICE will deport immigrants if the Supreme Court slashes the program, Vox previously reported, seen as a stark contrast to Chief Justice John Roberts’ statements, which pointed toward such deportations not happening.
Even the president has shifted his tone on the matter. In a 2017 tweet, in which he is believed to have been referencing DACA recipients, he wrote: “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!”
Then, in 2019, he tweeted: “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels.’ Some are very tough, hardened criminals. President Obama said he had no legal right to sign order, but would anyway. If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!”
If the U.S. Supreme Court determines the president acted unlawfully, a process — albeit one that would progress much slower — could begin where the rules are placed through the Administrative Procedure Act that would move to end DACA, “meaning he has to go through the entire rule-making process,” Cesar said.
Depending on a variety of factors, Cesar said that undertaking could take “one to 14 years.”
For Cesar, the ramifications of the decision — both nationally and personally — are clear.
“We’re talking about people who own homes, people paying taxes, people built their lives,” Cesar said. “For me, I am serving my country because I am fighting to ensure that my brother and other young people can stay together.”
While, as an immigration attorney, Cesar is keenly aware of the legal aspect of the DACA case, its closeness to his own situation has stirred up potent emotions. “For me to be worried more than that my own federal government, that my own president, can rip apart my family, and as opposed to the enemy abroad, that’s a tragedy.”