On the campaign trail, as part of his cynical campaign to exploit fear of immigrants, Donald Trump repeatedly attacked an Obama administration policy that offered protection to people who had been living illegally in the United States since they were children. "A horrible order," he called it, promising it would be "ended immediately." Then, after the election — perhaps worrying that such a mean-spirited move might backfire politically — Trump softened, saying he was "gonna deal with" those receiving deferrals "with heart." For some months, it was unclear what he would do.
But on Tuesday morning, he made the decision he so often does: the wrong one. In a brief written statement, Trump killed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an act of pure cruelty that threatens the well-being of nearly 800,000 people who live in the country illegally through no fault of their own but as a result of decisions made by their parents.
The president apparently lacked the courage himself to stand before the cameras and publicly dash the dreams of hundreds of thousands of people, so Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions made the announcement in a speech that was low in details and high in praise of his boss.
The best that can be said for it is that those who have already been granted what is known as "deferred status" will not be immediately or suddenly cut off. Instead, the administration will give Congress six months to decide whether to renew the protections legislatively before ending them.
Unfortunately, the chances of Congress rising to the challenge are aggravatingly slim, given the discord among Republicans over pretty much every major issue facing the nation. So a "wind down," as Sessions called it, offers little comfort to hundreds of thousands of people raised as Americans; what consolation is it to know that as of a certain date, they will no longer be able to live and work legally in the country where they were raised and educated and where many now lead productive lives?
There are many aspects of the immigration system and immigration enforcement that need vigorous debate, but it's beyond the pale that the government thinks it's wise policy to not offer relief to people who were grew up here but don't have legal status because of decisions made by their parents. From a cost-benefit standpoint, American school districts have invested in these children just as they have in U.S. citizens, but now the Trump administration has set the stage to kick them out of the country.
Who are the people currently holding deferments? They are young men and women like Antonio Cisnero, born in Acapulco and now living in Pomona, who is studying at Cal State L.A. (while working full time to pay for his education) for a career in biomedical engineering. Maria Lizeth Ruiz was born in Mexico City and now lives in Costa Mesa; she wants to become a court interpreter. Eunsoo Jeong, who came from South Korea to California as a 13-year-old, used DACA status to graduate from college and get a job in a Burbank animation lab. Jesus Contreras arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when he was 6, and he spent the last week doing his job in Houston — as a paramedic helping save people from flooding associated with Hurricane Harvey.
What public good is achieved by yanking such people from their homes, families and communities and sending them to countries where they are strangers and often don't even speak the language? Sessions argued that Obama's initial executive actions were illegal and unconstitutional — an assertion that seems based on a willful misreading of law and precedent. And he said the orders must be overturned because the U.S. is a nation of laws, a laughable statement from an administration that recently pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio on his conviction for flouting court orders.
There is a fix for this. Congress can and should resurrect the DREAM Act and make it national policy to offer these people a path to legalization. Under the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (just as under DACA), participants can't have had a serious criminal past and must be in school, or have graduated or serve in the military. They can't pose a threat to public safety or national security. American society and institutions have molded these young men and women; many of them already are productive members of society.
So here's an idea: How about members of Congress set aside their tribal differences and actually do something that the American people say they want?