Even before election day, Donald J. Trump was already moving away from his absurd campaign pledge to round up and deport more than 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status. Now, he tells the nation, he'll focus first on removing upward of 3 million "people that are criminal or have criminal records" while securing the Mexican border with a wall that might also include sections of fencing. He also has softened his rhetoric by conceding that some non-criminals living illegally in the U.S. without permission are "terrific people" who might be allowed to return.
But so far there is no plan. Among those left in limbo: the so-called Dreamers, people brought to the U.S. as minors and raised in this country since then, but who don't have legal permission to live here. To give them some breathing room, President Obama unilaterally created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 that has granted temporary reprieves from deportation to 742,000 people (about one in three of whom live in California), enabling many of them to work or otherwise come out from the legal shadows. Obama two years ago sought to expand DACA and create the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, but the courts have put those initiatives on hold in response to a lawsuit accusing the administration of overstepping its authority.
Trump rose as a candidate on anti-immigrant rhetoric that was tainted at times with flourishes of bigotry. His "deport-them-all" campaign promise was manifestly impractical and would, according to the right-of-center American Action Forum, take 20 years to accomplish, cost up to $600 billion (good luck getting that approved by Congress) and shave $1 trillion from GDP. It's hard to see how inflicting that kind of damage on a society built on immigration would "make America great again."
But Trump also promised to "immediately terminate" Obama's DACA and DAPA programs, which have been vociferously opposed by the GOP. As president, Trump could easily end both by revoking the administrative orders Obama signed to create them. He hasn't sent any post-election signals yet on the programs' fate, but picking Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — a leading voice in the Senate for more deportations — to head the Justice Department doesn't bode well.
Trump shouldn't take that path. The Dreamers who benefited from DACA bear no personal responsibility for their undocumented status, having arrived here through their parents' actions, not their own. To be eligible for the program, they had to have been born after June 15, 1981, and brought here before their 16th birthday, and must not have dropped out of school or committed serious crimes. Nor may they pose a national security or public safety risk. Those who have received DACA status already are, by and large, contributing members of society (some even have served in the military). Most, if they were eligible to apply for legal status, would be just the sort of immigrants the nation should welcome. It would be unjust to force them from the country they know as home — and return them to potentially dangerous countries where they may not even speak the language — because of the sins of their parents.
And DACA is not an amnesty program, no matter how candidate Trump and his right-wing backers sought to frame it. DACA was crafted as a reasonable, humanitarian accommodation by the Obama administration while Congress struggled to adopt meaningful longer-term immigration reform that would address their status as residents. Part of congressional recalcitrance to pass a comprehensive fix was pure politics: The past few Congresses will go down in history for their tenacious refusal to work with the Obama White House on some of the most pressing issues of the day, including immigration reform. But with Trump soon to occupy the Oval Office and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, the logjam could well end and the nation may finally get new immigration laws. Of course, that might give truth to the old adage about being careful what you wish for, as Republican opposition to a path to citizenship for people living in the country illegally and other common-sense reforms may lead lawmakers to adopt even worse immigration policies.
Still, we hope Trump and Congress recognize that a broad deportation campaign to uproot millions of people who have been here, on average, for more than a decade would be impractical, unjust and damaging. Such a program would devastate families, weaken neighborhoods and destabilize labor markets in agriculture, construction and even white-collar industries where professional-class workers are on the job without legal status. Trump could begin to assuage the anxieties of immigrant communities — and embrace basic human decency — by preserving DACA as a bridge to true, and humane, immigration reform, and recognizing that holding onto young people raised and educated here would be good for the country.