Immigration hawks are pressuring President Trump to stick by his pledge to end legal protections for some 750,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, while the immigrants themselves are cautiously relieved that he appears to be backing off.
Trump promised on the campaign trail to “terminate immediately” a program started by President Obama to temporarily protect these young people from deportation and offer them two-year renewable work permits. Obama’s action lacked congressional approval and Trump, in an immigration speech last year in Phoenix, called it an executive “amnesty” that “defied federal law and the Constitution.”
But in his first days in office, Trump has tried to emphasize more popular aspects of his immigration enforcement agenda — tightening the border and deporting those with criminal records, as Obama did — while avoiding the debate over young people, which plays to his opponents.
“His priority is first and foremost focused on people who pose a threat to people in our country, to criminals,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday. He said Trump wants his Cabinet to organize and create a plan to address Obama’s work visa program.
Spicer made similar comments Monday and allowed that Trump would consider legislation that might provide a longer-term solution.
As of Tuesday, officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that issues the work permits, were still accepting and processing applications under the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, agency spokesman Steve Blando said in an email. Blando said that some permits have been granted since Trump was inaugurated on Friday.
It’s unclear how long the sense of limbo will last. Trump may be using the issue as leverage for a bigger immigration deal.
The issue has long vexed even the most ardent advocates for strict immigration enforcement: what to do with children who had no control over the manner in which they came to the U.S. and, in many cases, have grown up like their peers who were born here.
One administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Trump believes that children brought by their parents did not break immigration laws willfully and should be treated differently than adults who came illegally.
"We don't want to hurt those kids,” Trump said during a private congressional luncheon Friday, according to Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat.
The administration official laid out Trump’s immigration priorities, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, was not among them. Beefing up deportations of criminals and beginning work on a border wall are his primary priorities, followed by implementing a stronger system of electronic verification of legal status in workplaces and cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities whose police departments refuse to cooperate with federal deportation efforts.
But Trump is already facing pressure to act more aggressively on one of his top campaign issues. Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which favors strict enforcement and limits on legal immigration, called the uncertainty around the program “troubling.”
Beck hopes Trump has a longer-term plan and is not softening on his hard-line promises.
“It is possible that there is a strategic reason that we would applaud for this initial delay,” Beck, who has close ties to Trump’s immigration policy team, wrote in a blog post. “It is also possible factions within the new administration are already disagreeing about immigration policy.”
Mark Krikorian, who heads a research group that favors strict enforcement, said he sees a divide in the West Wing between those led by Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, and Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist who has advocated for a nationalist agenda. Krikorian, who leads the Center for Immigration Studies, said that “it’s not necessarily time to go nuclear” but that the administration needs to feel pressure to strengthen the bargaining position for immigration hawks inside the White House.
Krikorian said he could see compromising on the issue as part of a broader immigration deal that would include mandatory electronic verification at workplaces and ending certain legal immigration programs, but believes the administration is wasting its leverage if it does not halt Obama’s program quickly.
Those affected by DACA are hardly celebrating, even if the most urgent threat has eased. Antonio Alarcon, a 22-year-old who immigrated with his family when he was 10 years old, said he is awaiting approval for his second renewal under the program, after applying in October. He works for an advocacy organization in New York.
“Obviously, I’m still nervous about it,” he said. “It was a temporary relief and we knew this could happen. We need to find other ways to keep working in the United States.”
Alarcon and other advocates on his side say that even if Trump grants permanent protection for those brought here as children, they continue to have broader concerns about his agenda, including its effect on family members who do not qualify for protections from deportation.
They note that Trump has yet to define what categories of criminal violations would constitute grounds for swift deportation. Many immigrants here illegally live in states that do not allow them to get a driver’s license, for example, exposing them to charges of driving without a license.
Angela Kelley, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the lobbying arm of the liberal think tank, said Trump may also choose to end DACA more quietly, by phasing out visa renewals, without a big cancellation announcement. She said those in the program also risk getting caught up in raids and facing deportations for lower-level criminal violations as Trump begins his broader crackdown.
She called the current delay “a head-scratcher,” given that Trump could have ended the program with a simple memo.
“It is sort of like a day-by-day feeling of a reprieve,” she said. “Nobody feels like they’re exonerated and protected for good.”