In the midst of the many immediate challenges confronting the White House and Congress, President Donald Trump just added one more. This past week, Trump told the Department of Justice to rescind the Obama-era DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Program.
When President Obama initiated DACA in 2012, he did so out of frustration with Congress’ inability to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that would have addressed the plight of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the US. Of special concern to Obama were the young people who had come into the US with their parents, had lived here for many years, were in school or working or in the US military, knew no other country but America – but through no fault of their own were undocumented and could be deported at any time.
Obama, therefore, instituted DACA, a program that allowed these young people an opportunity to normalize their lives. DACA allowed them to get work permits and to be safe from deportation.
To qualify for DACA, registrants had to meet specific requirements. Among them, they had to have been under 16 years of age when they entered the US, under 31 in the year DACA was introduced, and have virtually no criminal record. They also needed to demonstrate that they were working, in school, or serving in the military. Over 800,000 applied and most were found eligible.
Everyone knew that the program was a temporary fix, but given the failure of Congress to responsibly resolve the status of the undocumented, this fix provided much needed relief to those who were living in fear.
DACA was immediately denounced by Republicans as an unconstitutional overreach and they pledged to have it overturned. One of the most virulent opponents of the program was then Senator Jeff Sessions, the current Attorney General.
From his public statements on immigration, Trump has appeared to be somewhat ambivalent on the matter. He, too, accused Obama of overreach and had railed against “illegal immigrants.” At the same time he has expressed compassion for the young people who find themselves in this predicament. We are led to believe that the actions he took this week reflected this ambivalence. He ordered the Justice Department to announce the termination of DACA – but provided a six month window before its expiration – giving, he said, Congress that much time to legislate a solution.
The problem with what the president has done is that it was both unnecessary and unrealistic. It was also cruel and unsettling to the young people whose fate now hangs in the balance.
It was unnecessary because it didn’t have to be done. With Congress facing other pressing challenges – passing a budget, extending the debt ceiling, finding agreement on tax reform and health care reform, and dealing with costly crises brought on by this year’s hurricane season – the termination of DACA adds yet another burden to an already packed legislative calendar. It is unrealistic to expect that the same dysfunctional Congress that hasn’t been able to pass any meaningful legislation this year will now find its way to come to agreement in the next six months on the very issue ( immigration reform) that they have failed to resolve for well over a decade. And it is unsettling for the DACA recipients who now find themselves, once again, facing an uncertain future.
As an explanation of just how sticky this issue will be for a divided Congress to address, some Republicans are now proposing to their Democratic colleagues that they might support legislation to normalize the status of the DACA recipients if the Democrats will agree to support their efforts to cut in half the total number of immigrants allowed annually into the US and support funding for the wall Trump hopes to build between Mexico and the US. Not only do Democrats find it immoral to callously use the future of these young people as bargaining chips, they also consider both of these options to be unrelated non-starters.
There is one bill being proposed by Senators Lindsey Graham (Republican) and Richard Durbin (Democrat) that addresses the status of these young people as a stand alone measure. Their legislation is an updated version of the DREAM Act – an effort that has been proposed before but failed to pass both Houses of Congress in the same form. The DREAM Act and its companion in the House were introduced in July and are now facing the ticking clock imposed by Trump’s cruel six month deadline.
A final word about the DACA registrants: I have spoken to many of these young people and even, at one point hired one young man in my office. His story is not unusual. At the age of four, he came to the US from Morocco. Like his parents, he was undocumented. He went to school, graduated from college and didn’t discover he wasn’t a citizen until he applied to and was accepted in law school. Only then did he realize that he wasn’t a citizen of the only country he had ever known. Threatened with deportation to Morocco, he appealed and we were, in a small way, able to assist him. He received a stay of deportation, finished law school and today is an attorney working for a non-profit immigrant rights organization. In recognition of his commitment to public service, he was awarded a “Champion of Change” citation by the White House. Today he is a DACA registrant.
There are many stories, like his, of remarkable young DACA registrants making a real contribution to our country. While the issue of the “undocumented” is largely portrayed as a Latino issue, DACA registrants come from over 160 countries around the world. There are over 10,000 from Europe (including every country from that continent except Switzerland and Lichtenstein) and almost 2,000 from Arab countries, and almost 1,000 from Canada. Among all of them are great stories of heroism, scientific accomplishment, public and military service, and others about individuals who are working hard, raising young families, and contributing to their communities.
These young people deserve more than to be cruelly cast out or callously treated as bargaining chips. They deserve to have a clean DREAM act passed and they deserve to see Congress finally, responsibly, and compassionately pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Should Congress fail once again to do its duty, Trump ought to rescind his order and reinstate DACA. He says he “loves these kids”. Keeping them here would be the best way to show that love, instead of holding them hostage to a broken political process.