Students

Trump Will End DACA in 6 Months, Confirming Dreamers’ Fears and Putting Onus on Congress

September 05, 2017

Sipa USA, AP Images
Activists gathered in New York City in August to protest the Trump administration's expected action to curtail Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants some legal protections to immigrants who were illegally brought to the United States as children.

Updated with statements from President Trump (9/5/2017, 2 p.m.) and Barack Obama (4 p.m.).

A program that has given some 800,000 undocumented immigrants a chance to attend college, work, and build lives in the United States without fear of immediate deportation will be phased out after a six-month delay to give Congress a chance to come up with a legislative fix, the U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced on Tuesday.

The Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which Mr. Sessions referred to as an “open-ended circumvention of immigration laws,” confirmed the fears of so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the United States illegally as children and who have gained widespread support as they have fought for the right to remain.

The timing is a response to an ultimatum by 10 conservative attorneys general who vowed to sue if the president hadn’t ended DACA by September 5. And the announcement followed intense lobbying by politicians, preachers, lawyers, educators, and business leaders who argued that rescinding the program would be not only economically harmful to the country, but inhumane as well. Some moderate Republicans joined the call to retain the program.

Former President Barack Obama also weighed in, calling the decision “contrary to our spirit and to common sense.”

“To target these young people is wrong — because they have done nothing wrong,” Mr. Obama wrote in a post on Facebook. “It is self-defeating — because they want to start new businesses, staff our labs, serve in our military, and otherwise contribute to the country we love. And it is cruel.”

The loudest and most effective voices, however, have come from the Dreamers themselves, who were joined by supporters in escalating protests outside the White House and around the country on Tuesday.

Using platforms like United We Dream and Dream Action Coalition and engaging in nearly nonstop lobbying over the five years of DACA’s existence, they have refused to take their tenuous status for granted. They have forced immigration hard-liners who conjure fears of murderers and rapists to confront the reality of accomplished young people who have overcome hardships, contributed to their colleges and communities, and stand to lose everything they’ve worked for.

Without DACA status, Dreamers are expected to lose — and be unable to renew — their work authorization. That could force many undocumented college students, who don’t have access to federal loans and have been piecing together part-time jobs, to drop out.

In a statement released after Mr. Sessions delivered the news, Mr. Trump said his highest duty is defending the American people and the Constitution. “At the same time, I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents,” the statement read. “But we must also recognize that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”

Legal experts, including Mr. Sessions, have told him DACA is unconstitutional and couldn’t be successfully defended in court, he said.

DACA recipients range in age from 15 to 36, with most in their 20s, the president said.

“While new applications for work permits will not be accepted, all existing work permits will be honored until their date of expiration up to two full years from today,” he said. “Furthermore, applications already in the pipeline will be processed, as will renewal applications for those facing near-term expiration.”

As a result, he said, he’s not just cutting DACA off, but providing “a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act.”

The president's action leaves DACA recipients vulnerable to deportation from the only country they've known. The president sought to alleviate those concerns by saying he has advised the Department of Homeland Security "that DACA recipients are not enforcement priorities unless they are criminals, are involved in criminal activity, or are members of a gang."

No one covered by DACA will be affected before March 5, 2018, according to a news release from the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, Elaine Duke, who added, “I want to be clear that no new initial requests or associated applications filed after today will be acted on.”

The attorney general, in a letter to Ms. Duke, said that DACA was created after Congress had rejected similar protections, calling it an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch.”

“Ending the previous administration’s disrespect for the legislative process is an important first step,” he said.

DACA, he said, resulted in “a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences.” It also “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens,” he said.

“A lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest means we can’t admit everyone who wants to come here,” Mr. Sessions added. A compassionate response to the immigration problem, he said, is to secure the borders and keep people safe.

The president’s decision to punt the matter to Congress angered many who see the move as an attempt to placate his base by appearing tough on immigration while shielding himself from blame if a solution isn’t found in the next six months.

Immigration hard-liners counter that President Obama’s decision in 2012 to create DACA by executive action, without congressional approval, was illegal, and that shifting responsibility back to Congress is appropriate.

The move puts renewed pressure on federal lawmakers to approve one of several pending bills that would afford some kind of protection for undocumented people currently covered by DACA.

It is unclear what would happen if, after six months, Congress failed to pass legislation protecting the Dreamers. Versions of the the Dream Act, first introduced in 2001, have been voted on and defeated several times since then, and getting the Republican-controlled Congress to approve the 2017 version could be an uphill battle. Not only has anti-immigrant sentiment grown in recent years, but Congress faces a number of daunting tasks, including raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget for the fiscal year that begins on October 1, coming up with a recovery package for the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast, and dealing with the nuclear threat from North Korea.

An alternative to the Dream Act is a bipartisan bill, the Bridge Act, whose key sponsors are two U.S. senators, Lindsey O. Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. It would provide work authorization and a temporary reprieve from deportation, but unlike the Dream Act, it would not provide a path to citizenship.

‘Cruel, Gratuitous, and Devastating’

Reactions to the announcement began pouring in before Mr. Sessions spoke. New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, and governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, said on Tuesday that they would sue if the president rescinded DACA. Mr. Schneiderman said the decision would be “cruel, gratuitous, and devastating to tens of thousands of New Yorkers.”

Among those who could soon be out of work are Edni del Rosal, who has a full-time job lined up at IBM starting in January, weeks after he completes his master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

His DACA permit expires on February 28, and it’s unclear whether he will be permitted to renew it. If he can’t, he said, he’ll lose the job he spent four years of college, three internships, and a stint in graduate school preparing for.

Mr. del Rosal, 28, was brought by his parents to Edinburg, Tex., from a small village in central Mexico when he was 8, along with three siblings, two of whom also have DACA protection. An avid musician, he was turned on to electrical engineering by an AP physics class where he built a guitar amplifier and realized he was good at reading schematics and wiring.

With DACA, “all of a sudden, doors opened, and I was going to be able to accomplish so much,” he said.

Another student, an 18-year-old freshman whose DACA permit will expire just before she graduates from Illinois Valley Community College’s dental-hygienist program, agreed to talk to a reporter as long as her name wasn’t revealed. “I’m scared,” she said of the wrench that’s been thrown into her plans to eventually become a dentist.

The student, who has a full-time job cleaning at a nearby hospital, attends college part time so she can afford the two-year program. Without DACA, “I won’t be able to work or pay my bills. I’ll lose my health insurance, and I won’t be able to drive or finish my education,” said the student, who was 2 when her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico.

If she could speak to the president, she said, she’d tell him, “Even if it was wrong what our parents did, be compassionate to us. A 2-year-old couldn’t make a conscious decision to move here.”

Losing DACA status could force her and many other undocumented people back into the shadows since something as minor as a traffic violation could get them deported, advocates say. Dreamers feel particularly vulnerable because, in order to get DACA protection, they had to turn over personal information, including their home addresses, school records, and fingerprints, to the federal government.

And even though the Trump administration has said its focus would be on deporting criminals, it’s been casting a much wider net in its enforcement crackdowns, ensnaring people with no criminal records if they happened to be with someone targeted for deportation.

Meanwhile, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many of the undocumented people living in the United States to get permanent legal status without having to return to their native countries for up to 10 years, with no guarantee they’ll get back in.

As rumors were swirling that DACA’s days were numbered, nearly 2,000 national leaders, including eight governors, signed a letter urging the president to preserve it.

The program, which provides access to Social Security cards, drivers’ licenses, and in some cases in-state college tuition rates, has allowed Dreamers to advance their educations, start small businesses, and become integral members of society, they wrote. “Ending DACA means all of these young people would be at risk of deportation and separation from their families and our communities,” the letter stated. “This would be senselessly cruel.”

Ending the program and removing hundreds of thousands of young people from the work force would cost the country an estimated $460 billion in lost gross domestic product over a decade and tens of billions more in lost contributions to Medicare and Social Security, the letter said. Businesses could incur $3.4 billion in turnover costs.

A report published by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, also found that after receiving DACA protection, 69 percent of respondents reported moving to a better-paying job. The report was based on a national survey of more than 3,000 respondents conducted last month by Tom K. Wong, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego and immigrant-rights’ groups.

The same survey found that many people who might be eligible for DACA have been too afraid to apply for it since President Trump took office. Some have also held off renewing their status. In that sense, the phaseout of DACA may have already begun.

Increasing Frustration

Pressure on the president to protect Dreamers escalated during the week, with Dreamers camped outside the White House and activists becoming increasingly frustrated.

DACA has been open to people who were under age 31 on June 15, 2012, came to the United States before turning 16, and have continuously lived in the country since June 15, 2007. They cannot have a criminal record and must have a high-school diploma or GED certification, have been honorably discharged from the military, or still be in school. It does not confer legal status or a path to citizenship, but ensures that recipients are treated as low priorities for deportation.

That has provided a bit of comfort for Dreamers who have watched with alarm as the Trump administration has expanded its definition of who should be deportable to include people whose only crime was crossing the border illegally. During his presidential campaign, President Trump vowed to end DACA as soon as he took office, but he later indicated he would treat beneficiaries with “great heart.”

Since then, the administration has issued confusing and contradictory messages about the program’s future. The Trump administration has continued to renew and issue new permits at nearly the same rate as the Obama administration, angering immigration hawks who are expected to oppose attempts to protect Dreamers from deportation. The Federation for American Immigration Reform considers the 2017 Dream Act “free-standing amnesty,” according to a FAIR spokesman, Ira Mehlman.

Asked whether he had any sympathy for Dreamers who might be deported for an act they had no control over, he said it’s not that different from a parent who failed to save up money for a child to go to college. In each case, the child ends up suffering because of a bad decision by the parent, he said — unfortunate, but unavoidable.

Ted Mitchell, president of the the American Council on Education, urged Congress to consider either the Dream Act or the Bridge Act in a statement decrying Mr. Trump’s reported decision. “Taking action to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, even with a reported six-month delay, will throw the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people and their families into turmoil,” said Mr. Mitchell, who was a top U.S. Department of Education official during the Obama administration.

In 2016, after Mr. Trump was elected, more than 600 college and university presidents signed a statement urging that DACA be “upheld, continued, and expanded.”

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.