By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. judge on Wednesday ruled against a program offering deportation relief and work permits to immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, known as "Dreamers," despite an attempt by President Joe Biden's administration to bolster the program's standing with a new regulation.
The decision by Texas-based U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen deals a fresh setback to the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and its 579,000 enrollees and other immigrants who might have hoped to be approved.
Hanen, a Republican-appointed judge, found that a regulation issued last year by Biden's administration did not remedy legal deficiencies that led him to find DACA unlawful in 2021 and block any expansion of the program, which has been in place for more than a decade.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security can continue to renew the status of those enrolled in DACA prior to Hanen's 2021 ruling, he said. Many DACA recipients speak English and have jobs, homes and families in the United States.
Hanen wrote that the order did not require U.S. immigration authorities "to take any immigration, deportation, or criminal action against any DACA recipient, applicant, or any other individual that would otherwise not be taken."
The ruling, which came in response to a lawsuit brought by Texas and other states, is expected to be appealed.
"As we have long maintained, we disagree with the District Court's conclusion that DACA is unlawful, and will continue to defend this critical policy from legal challenges," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in a written statement released on Wednesday night. "While we do so, consistent with the court's order, DHS will continue to process renewals for current DACA recipients and DHS may continue to accept DACA applications."
"The ruling preserves the stay, which means current DACA recipients will not lose their protection from removal," Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said in a separate statement. "But this ruling does undermine the security and stability of more than half a million Dreamers who have contributed to our communities."
The office of Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which represents DACA recipients siding with the Biden administration in the litigation, called Hanen's ruling "more of the same flawed analysis."
Biden, a Democrat who is seeking re-election in 2024, has made it a priority to defend DACA, which was created in 2012 under former President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president. Texas and eight other states with Republican attorneys general argued that the program violates federal regulatory law and saddles them with education, healthcare and law enforcement costs.
In October 2022, the conservative-leaning 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Hanen's ruling against DACA, but sent the case back to him for reconsideration in light of Biden's regulation formalizing the program.
Former President Donald Trump, a Republican seeking re-election in 2024, sought to end DACA but was rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found Trump's attempt at termination did not comply with regulatory laws.
Some 81% of DACA enrollees are from Mexico, followed by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data. About 164,000 live in California, which supports the legal efforts to defend the DACA program, while Texas is home to 95,000.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Christopher Cushing)