The unauthorized immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, are an extraordinarily sympathetic group regardless of where one stands on illegal immigration: brought to the United States as children and raised here, most have never known any other home country.
The Trump administration’s newly announced decision to end the Obama-era program, potentially exposing nearly 800,000 to deportation, has been met with intensely negative reactions across the political spectrum — which is unsurprising. What’s remarkable is that the administration itself seems conflicted. This confusion exemplifies the schizophrenic contradictions of our policy toward immigrants in the country illegally.
In his written statement on ending DACA, President Donald Trump asserted that he did not “favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents” — but that he had to end the program, which grants work permits, social security numbers, and other benefits to its recipients, because it violates the law. The Obama administration created DACA by a policy memorandum in 2012, after Congress repeatedly failed to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (or “DREAM,” from which these immigrants get their emotionally charged nickname “Dreamers”). Critics regard this as an unconstitutional abuse of executive power; other legal experts disagree. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has said the program is legal, but only if it allows for case-by-case reviews of applications.
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave the speech announcing the administration’s plan to end DACA six months from now, his comments emphasized the program’s supposed harms aside from the issue of legality. He claimed that DACA had “contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border.” (Untrue: the policy covers only people who have resided in the United States since 2007.) He asserted that it “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens” — a standard, and repeatedly debunked, anti-immigration talking point.
Yet the very next day, Trump sent out a game-changing tweet: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”
Leaving aside the petty jab at Barack Obama, is Trump asking Congress to legalize what his own attorney general just said was a terrible program? So it seems. Is he saying that he will reverse the DACA reversal if Congress doesn’t do that? He’s certainly hinting as much.
Writing in the left-of-center magazine, The Intercept, journalist Ryan Grim argues that Trump is backpedaling because going after the “Dreamers” is not a winning move politically. A June poll found that only 14 percent of all Americans, and 22 percent of Republicans, want them deported — while more than two-thirds of Republicans want them to stay here legally and half support granting them citizenship.
In the meantime, the Department of Homeland Security is still accepting applications for two-year work permit renewals under DACA, creating additional questions about whether the program is actually ending.
For now, DACA remains in limbo. But it is also worth noting that the program itself is a kind of limbo, giving its recipients some residency right but not permanent residency or a path to citizenship; their investment in being Americans remains limited.
A far saner approach would be for Congress to create a path to citizenship, not only for “Dreamers” but also for other immigrants here illegally who have led productive American lives and have deep ties to American communities. But our policy remains hostage to a small minority of Republicans obsessed with the menace of immigrants here illegally.
Expect more Kafkaesque half-measures.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.