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DACA remains a dilemma for Trump

People hold signs during a rally in support

People hold signs during a rally in support of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in San Diego on June 18, 2020. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/SANDY HUFFAKER

DACA has been hanging in limbo for most of President Donald Trump's tenure in the Oval Office.

As his term winds down, he is again promising action to resolve the uncertainty over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives protections to young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children.

But where the president will go, no one seems to know. Trump has sent very mixed signals about what he intends to do. That has happened before.

DACA has been a dilemma for Trump. As a candidate, he vowed to end the program that was created through executive action by President Barak Obama. Trump kept his promise and attempted to scuttle the program in 2017 as he embarked on cracking down on illegal immigration and beefing up border enforcement.

At the same time, the new president professed a desire to have the program reinstated through congressional legislation — "the right way," he said — as long as it was combined with other immigration measures. Despite some positive comments about a deal from Trump and congressional Democrats as well as Republicans, no agreement could be reached.

This split approach by Trump — attempting to kill a program he professes to like — underscores how difficult DACA politics have become for him. Ending the policy appeals to many of his supporters, but the program has been very popular, transcending the deep fissure over immigration and fortifying the border.

In early June, the Pew Research Center said nearly three-quarters of U.S adults — including 54% of Republicans — favored legal status for people brought into the country illegally as children. Those numbers have remained steady for more than two years, with Republican support growing slightly.

The latest Pew survey was released the day before the Supreme Court voted 5-4 on June 18 to overturn Trump's action to end the program.

At first blush, it seemed like Trump caught a political break. He had tried to kill the program, which many in his base wanted, but the court left it intact.

Importantly, that avoided the deportation of DACA recipients. Sending so-called "dreamers" to their "home" country would have been a tragedy, because many of these young adults have spent most of their lives in the U.S.

It also could have been devastating for the president politically. Forced removal of people is never pleasant — even less so when they did nothing wrong (their parents brought them here) and they are generally productive workers or students and law-abiding residents. In other words, very sympathetic figures.

It quickly became apparent that the ruling actually put Trump in something of a bind.

The court said Trump had the authority to take such action, but just did it wrong. Chief Justice John Roberts, in writing the majority opinion, said the administration did not give the necessary justification needed to end DACA.

So, Trump could try again.

He soon said he would move to take down the program again, but so far has not done so. As before, he said he would end DACA only to revive it in some form as part of a broader immigration package. He talked about doing it through legislation or executive order.

There's no chance of an agreement with Congress on overhauling immigration laws this close to the election, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, struggling economy, social justice protests and the deployment of federal forces to cities.

Besides, long before Trump, and during less volatile and partisan times, Washington couldn't get immigration reform done.

It's unclear how broadly he could reshape immigration policy through executive order, but he can do away with DACA. Viewed through the prism of conventional politics, now would seem like a bad time to do that. But this is a president who rarely looks at things that way.

He has consistently played to his base on various issues when it might seem the better call would be to tack to a more broadly appealing position, or at least tone.

Still, it's hard to glean what going after DACA again would get him at this stage. Even if he doesn't, the immigration hardliners who want DACA dead aren't going to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden, though you can't count out the notion that some might just not vote. But it's not like Trump has otherwise become soft on immigration enforcement.

The risk seems greater of turning off swing voters inclined to support him who might consider keeping DACA a threshold issue — however many there are — assuming they could forgive his earlier effort now that the court has blocked it. Maybe the calculus is he's lost them already.

Deportations of DACA recipients, of course, would be really bad optics just before an election, though whether that could actually start happening before November amid certain legal challenges is unknown.

Besides, in the most cynical view, deportations likely would benefit Democrats politically.

DACA has been a political football since Trump came into office, a period of uncertainty and worry for some 650,000 immigrants who have temporary legal status under the program.

Trump has had harsh words about illegal immigrants in general, but his comments regarding "dreamers" have been more sympathetic.

"They shouldn't be very worried," Trump said in an ABC News interview shortly after his inauguration in January 2017. "I do have a big heart. We're going to take care of everybody."

He said a policy would be forthcoming to address that temporary status, among other things. In September of that year, he moved to rescind the program but said then and later that he would push for a legislative resolution to protect the "dreamers."

In January 2018, Trump called for a "bipartisan bill of love" on DACA. That kind of love was not in the air.

The Supreme Court ruling gave DACA recipients a big reprieve, but their worries over what Trump may do remain.

Michael Smolens wrote this piece for The San Diego Union-Tribune.