Seven years ago, Congress had a chance to take a humane approach to people living in the United States illegally not through their own actions, but through the actions of their parents. Arriving as children, some of these immigrants were smuggled across the border while others entered legally but their families failed to leave when they were supposed to. Many weren’t even aware of their immigration status until they tried to get a job or had some other official contact that required proof of citizenship or a Social Security number. Many also know no other country — they have been raised as Americans, educated in American schools, and share American dreams and values. It would be cruel to send them packing now.
To lessen the threat of deportation for those who arrived in the United States as children, the House in 2010 passed the Dream Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for those who met certain conditions. But Democrats in the Senate failed to muster enough support to bring it to a vote, so it died. In the wake of that political debacle, President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, using prosecutorial discretion to grant temporary relief for people who met roughly the same conditions spelled out in the failed Dream Act. Of the 1.3 million people eligible for protection — a renewable two-year card granting permission to live and work in the United States — some 750,000 have applied for and received it.
Enter Donald Trump. One of the mainstays of his presidential campaign was demonization of immigrants in the country illegally and bellicose promises to deport them all, build a wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it. But Trump was strangely, for him, conciliatory about the Dreamers — those who would have been eligible for protection under the Dream Act. After initially pledging to “immediately end” the program once he moved into the Oval Office, he softened on the campaign trail.
As well he should. The usual arguments for escalating deportations — that low-wage immigrants compete unfairly with U.S. citizens, and that they somehow pose a threat to public safety — are especially hollow when applied to those brought into the country as young children.
As president, Trump has expressed sympathy for the Dreamers’ plight and has left the DACA program alone even as he ramped up deportations and ended Obama’s planned extension of protections to parents of citizens and legal residents, but who are themselves in the United States illegally. Yet Trump also has not endorsed DACA, likely fearing backlash from political supporters who bought into his draconian views on immigration.
Those waters were further muddied recently when Texas and several other states threatened to file a legal challenge to DACA if Trump did not rescind it. Last week, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told members of Congress that he thought the Obama executive action that created DACA was likely illegal and an abuse of executive power. He questioned whether the Trump administration would defend it in court if the states did sue. Trump responded that he would make the decision on DACA, not Kelly or U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions (whose antipathy to immigration runs deep). Meanwhile, the Dreamers are left in limbo as the infighting in the White House continues between the hard-liners who want to end DACA and those whose hearts aren’t made completely of ice.
The best solution here is a comprehensive immigration overhaul that would include a reprieve for the Dreamers, but it’s quixotic to think that this White House, and this Congress, would ever agree on humane reforms. The closest we came was the 2013 “Gang of Eight” Senate bill that, while imperfect, offered a bipartisan blueprint for dealing with immigrants who are in the country illegally, among other improvements in the law. That measure died in the House when Republican Speaker John A. Boehner refused to let it come to a vote.
Trump can move us in a better direction. He should show some political courage, endorse the DACA provisions and defend them should Texas carry through with its threat to sue. That would leave some of his core supporters frothing at the mouth, but that’s what a leader does — makes the tough calls in the country’s best interests regardless of the politics.