President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after a six-month delay is a transparent attempt to pass the buck. Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggested that in announcing the policy shift when he argued that the Obama administration executive order creating DACA was an unconstitutional overreach of presidential power but that the Trump administration would be happy to dutifully enforce any new law governing the 800,000 affected people if Congress enacts one. Trump was, of course, blunter on Twitter, writing this morning: “Congress, get ready to do your job — DACA!”
Trump was reportedly pressured from both sides on this issue. He has spoken sympathetically in the past about the young people known as Dreamers and clearly must realize that mass deportations of people who were brought to the United States as children is lousy politics. But he is also facing pressure from the conservative base, including from a group of state attorneys general that is threatening to sue if he continues the program. Sending Sessions — a hard-line anti-immigration activist during his years in the Senate — was a sop to those who want mass deportations and a wall; promising an “orderly” process was an attempt to soften the blow to the other side.
But make no mistake, the upshot is to throw the lives of these young people into turmoil. The administration intends to stop accepting new DACA applications immediately. Those whose status for the program was set to expire during the next six months will reportedly be allowed to renew for another two-year period, but the vast majority will start seeing their protected status expire as soon as March. Given the aggressiveness of Trump administration immigration enforcement officials, DACA participants, who provided the government with extensive information about who they are and when they arrived in the country, will have good reason to fear that they have set themselves up for swift separation from their families and deportation to countries they may barely remember.
The notion that this president can cajole Congress into filling the leadership void he left on this issue is laughable. He couldn’t get a Republican House and Senate to agree on a plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the party’s chief, unifying rallying cry for seven years. Why should we expect he would do better on immigration, an issue that deeply divides the GOP?
House Speaker Paul Ryan greeted the administration’s announcement with a statement expressing hope “that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country.” But all indications suggest that it will be impossible to convince the Republican caucus in either chamber to protect the Dreamers without exacting a price, whether that’s funding for Trump’s border wall or a strict reduction in legal immigration, as some GOP senators have already proposed.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned on Twitter last month that “Dreamers are not a bargaining chip for the border wall and inhumane deportation force. Period.” But Dreamers shouldn’t necessarily feel certain that Democrats won’t see them as a potentially potent campaign issue as much as they consider their fate a humanitarian imperative. The March expiration of DACA comes right in the middle of the primary season before the midterm elections, and in as much as Democrats win with their base by fighting for the Dreamers, they may win bigger if they can blame Republicans for failing (or refusing) to protect them.
Trump could have avoided this political morass by doing what President Barack Obama did five years ago in erring on the side of protecting a class of people who did nothing wrong and recognizing that their potential contributions to our society are just as great as those of young people who were born here. If the president were really sincere in his sympathy for the Dreamers, he could have proposed legislation to protect them rather than just tweeting at Congress. But by trotting out Sessions to proclaim that ending DACA actually “prevents human suffering,” the president made clear where his sympathies lie. The “delay” of the DACA repeal is nothing but a political fig leaf designed to forestall the kind of backlash the administration saw after the abrupt implementation of the Muslim ban in January. Trump wants the Dreamers out, and he wants Congress to get the blame. Dreamers, who are engaging in protests around the country, including a fast in Washington, aren’t buying it. Neither should we.