In April, President Trump told undocumented people brought to the United States as children to “rest easy,” as his administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration would only threaten criminals. This statement was always patently disingenuous (a DACA recipient had been deported days before Trump’s statement; most Americans would not “rest easy” knowing that only their parents were at a heightened risk of being thrown out of the country). But on Tuesday, the president demonstrated just how little his past reassurances to the Dreamers were worth:
Hours later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed reports that the president plans to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) after giving Congress a six-month-window to codify the Obama-era executive order into law.
Under DACA, nearly 800,000 undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children (a.k.a. Dreamers) secured a renewable, two-year period of immunity from deportation, and access to work permits. The nativist portion of the GOP base despised this act of mercy for “illegals,” and far-right Republican lawmakers echoed such outrage. The party’s moderates, meanwhile, could cater to this xenophobic rage – without sacrificing their “compassionate conservative” brands – by insisting that they sympathized with the Dreamers’ plight, but not with Barack Obama’s unconstitutional expansion of executive power. In their statements Tuesday, Sessions and Trump played both these tunes simultaneously. The president and attorney general devoted much of their time to denouncing DACA in procedural terms, but also argued that any measure providing Dreamers with legal status would hurt native-born workers.
Nonetheless, Trump insisted that he does not “favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents,” and did invite Congress to take action on behalf of those “children.”
If Trump can cheerlead a legislative version of the program (or some other measure insulating law-abiding Dreamers from the threat of deportation) through Congress, then he will actually leave that particular undocumented population more secure than he found them. But that’s a big if — after all, DACA only exists because Barack Obama couldn’t get congressional Republicans to back a legislative solution to the Dreamers’ plight.
It’s possible that Trump could succeed where Obama failed. During the latter’s tenure, the GOP leadership had little interest in helping a Democratic president tally legislative victories of any kind, let alone one that would have boosted his party’s appeal with Latino voters.
But now, passing a law to protect Dreamers would allow the Republican Party to get on the right side of public opinion — and signal that its hard-line stance on illegal immigration is informed by a commitment to the rule of law, not animosity for nonwhites. Trump has, of course, undermined the GOP’s capacity to make the latter claim — most conspicuously, with his pardon of former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose office abused Latino citizens and noncitizens alike. And that isn’t a minor problem for Republicans. If Latinos ever start voting like African-Americans, the GOP will be unable to compete in national elections. (There are a decent number of Hispanic voters who favor restrictive immigration policies; there are very few who believe that police should be allowed to harass and abuse anyone who looks “illegal.”)
What’s more, the congressional GOP will have status-quo bias on their side. As the fight over Obamacare demonstrated, its a lot harder to take rights away from people than to deny them said rights in the first place. This will be especially true with the reversal of DACA, since Dreamers who participated in the program — and, thus, identified themselves as undocumented to federal authorities — would be left even more vulnerable to deportation than they were before the program was enacted. Further, as Vox’s Dara Lind notes, there is simply no precedent for the sudden “illegalization” of hundreds of thousands of people who were raised as Americans:
There’s never really been a time when a generation of people, raised and rooted in the United States, has been stripped of official recognition and pushed back into the precarity of unauthorized-immigrant life.
Even though DACA never officially legalized anyone, ending it would be, in a way, the biggest “illegalization” of immigrants in American history.
…With DACA hanging in the balance, America has a group of people on the verge of being socially integrated, but legally isolated — socially championed, but legally victimized — in a way we’ve never really seen before.
Finally, Trump enjoys the “Nixon to China” advantage: Having established his xenophobic bona fides with the Breitbart base, this Republican president may be uniquely well positioned to champion mercy for the “good illegals.”
All that said, no Dreamer can “rest easy” knowing her fate depends on Donald Trump’s compassion and the congressional GOP’s willingness to compromise. For one thing, It’s far from clear that Trump would even endorse legislation that protects DACA recipients if that bill did not include funding for his wall, or restrictions on legal immigration. In his statement Tuesday, the president argued that DACA had spurred a “humanitarian crisis,” by inspiring unaccompanied child migrants to sneak across our southern border. He also suggested that lax enforcement of immigration laws had produced “lower wages and higher unemployment for American workers.” These aren’t arguments against how DACA was implemented, but against the policy itself. By Trump’s logic, protecting Dreamers from deportation incentivized more undocumented immigration, and took jobs from native-born workers – effects that a congressionally-passed DACA would also ostensibly have.
For another, Iowa congressman Steve King has already made his opposition to “amnesty” known. And with an unleashed Steve Bannon poised to rail against the law at Breitbart — and Republican incumbents heading into 2018 primary season — many GOP lawmakers may be loath to back a measure that divides their base.
There are almost certainly enough votes to pass some kind of “DREAM Act” in the House and Senate, as Democrats would back such a bill en masse. But Republican House Speakers generally don’t allow votes on legislation that most of their own caucus opposes. Before Trump’s DACA decision, Paul Ryan was already in hot water with his far-right flank, since the Speaker has little interest in holding America’s credit rating hostage to spending cuts that can’t survive the Senate. This month, Ryan will need to raise the debt ceiling, pass Hurricane Harvey relief, and keep the government funded, all measures that may require him to opt for compromising with Democrats over appeasing the House Freedom Caucus.
If Ryan forces a vote on a DACA replacement on top of all that, he could inspire a far-right mutiny; if he doesn’t, he might not be able to rely on House Democrats to help his party perform the basic duties of governance. According to Politico, some Republicans are already worried that Democrats will demand legislation protecting DACA recipients be attached to any debt ceiling hike.
One possible endgame is that such legislation does get paired with some piece of red meat for immigration hard-liners — a down payment on Trump’s border wall, or else more funding for other border security initiatives. For the moment, however, Democrats are saying they won’t allow Republicans to use DACA recipients as bargaining chips.
Should Congress fail to “do its job,” there may be one last source of hope for Dreamers. As Politico reports:
And a senior White House aide said that if Republican lawmakers fail to agree on a plan, he didn’t expect Trump to follow through on terminating DACA — a prospect that would test Bannon’s commitment to support his former boss from the outside.
The fact that this president rarely means what he says was once a source of anxiety for Dreamers; now, it may be one of the population’s few causes for comfort.