A federal judge in New York has ruled that the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, assumed his position unlawfully and has invalidated Wolf’s suspension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program, which shields young people from deportation.

“DHS failed to follow the order of succession as it was lawfully designated,” the US District Judge Nicholas Garaufis wrote.

“Therefore the actions taken by purported acting secretaries, who were not properly in their roles according to the lawful order of succession, were taken without legal authority.”

About 650,000 people are part of Daca, which allows young immigrants who were brought to the country as children to legally work and shields them from deportation.

Karen Tumlin, an attorney who represented a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits that challenged Wolf’s authority, called the ruling “another win for Daca recipients and those who have been waiting years to apply for the program for the first time”.

Wolf issued a memorandum in July effectively suspending Daca pending review by DHS. A month earlier the US supreme court had ruled that Donald Trump failed to follow rule-making procedures when he tried to end the program, but the justices kept a window open for him to try again.

In August the Government Accountability Office, a bipartisan congressional watchdog, said Wolf and his acting deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, were improperly serving and ineligible to run the agency under the Vacancies Reform Act. The two have been at the forefront of administration initiatives on immigration and law enforcement.

Wolf is the fifth person to serve as homeland security secretary under Trump in an acting or confirmed capacity, while George W Bush and Barack Obama each had three people in the job over the course of their two presidential terms. Wolf was named to the post only after two of the president’s preferred candidates were ruled ineligible to take up the job.

Since being appointed to the role, Wolf has overseen the controversial deployment of federal agents to quell Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, as well as denying that there was a problem with systemic racism in US law enforcement. He has also downplayed the threat of Covid-19, while overseeing the implementation of extreme immigration restrictions the White House claimed would stem the spread of coronavirus.

In Garaufis’s ruling on Saturday, the judge wrote that DHS did not follow an order of succession established when then-secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in April 2019.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

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