A decision on the fate of DACA is due Tuesday. Ending the program would arguably be the most mean-spirited and shortsighted of the Trump administration’s many anti-immigrant actions.
On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump attacked the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as an “executive amnesty” perpetrated by President Obama. But after the election he repeatedly declined to simply shut it down, promising that he would find a way to “do something for the kids.” Now it appears he may have been putting the program on life support, to be terminated whenever a compelling political rationale came along.
The president is being pushed to pull the plug ostensibly because nine Republican state attorneys general, joined by Idaho Gov. C.L. Otter, threatened to sue the Trump administration if it failed to start dismantling what they consider to be an unconstitutional program by Sept. 5. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has already made it clear he won’t defend DACA against the charge that Obama usurped congressional authority by granting temporary legal status to a large group of immigrants.
But let’s call the lawsuit what it is: a convenient pretext.
Apart from the constitutionality issue, opponents of DACA cling to the threadbare “magnet” theory, according to which any benefit provided by the federal government induces more illegal migration. But there is not a shred of evidence from scientific research that the availability of DACA, or any social service, is what attracts immigrants. Overwhelming evidence shows that they come because of family ties and wage and employment differentials between their country and the United States. Some are fleeing gangs and drug violence in their place of origin.
If Trump rescinds DACA or decides to wind it down gradually, what will be accomplished? It would rob more than 800,000 young people brought to this country by their parents of the chance to lead fully productive lives. It would restrict their access to higher education and make them vulnerable to exploitation by employers who could take advantage of their deportability. Their lifetime contributions to tax revenues would be stunted. And rather than causing DACA recipients to “self-deport” — the fantasy solution to unauthorized immigration cherished by conservatives — it would just push them underground.
These highly motivated young people have spent most of their lives trying to become full-fledged Americans, mastering English, staying out of trouble, paying taxes, pursuing any opportunity to advance themselves. In the vast majority of cases, they (and their parents) have no family or economic base in their home country to return to. If they must live permanently in the shadows in the U.S., they will.
DACA recipients interviewed by my research team in San Diego County in 2014 reported that even temporary protection from deportation — DACA protection lasts two years and is renewable — enabled them to get higher-paying jobs, making college more financially possible. DACA encouraged them to invest more in their education because legal employment would be available when they finished. It conferred important psychological benefits, giving recipients a sense of security, belonging and normalcy. And yet DACA recipients were also acutely aware of the precariousness of their temporary legal status.
Ending DACA is just one piece of the Trump administration’s broad assault on immigrant families and communities. A policy memo signed in February by then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly stripped protection from deportation from undocumented family members of active-duty military personnel. Recently, the Trump administration enthusiastically embraced the RAISE Act, proposed by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Purdue (R-Ga.), which would tear apart our largely family-based legal immigration system with the goal of sharply reducing the supply of “low-skilled” labor — at a time when many U.S. employers face labor shortages that will deepen as 76 million baby boomers retire.
What these wrongheaded and inhumane measures have in common is profound ignorance of the on-the-ground realities of immigration and labor markets in 21st century America, together with eagerness to toss red meat to the nativists in Trump’s base. It’s up to Congress to restore some measure of sanity and constructive purpose to immigration policymaking.
Legislation introduced in July by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) would do what should have been done long ago for DACA-eligible young people. The Dream Act would grant legal permanent resident status to an estimated 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before age 18 and can meet other DACA-type requirements. If the Dream Act fails due to Republican obstruction or a presidential veto, GOP leaders will need to explain to the majority of Americans, who according to polls approve of DACA, why Congress won’t stop punishing children for a misdemeanor — unauthorized entry — committed by their parents.
Wayne Cornelius is director emeritus of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at UC San Diego and coauthor of “One Step In and One Step Out: The Lived Experience of Immigrant Participants in the DACA Program.”
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