Just over 640,000 Americans currently enjoy protection under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. These people, colloquially known as “Dreamers,” were brought to this country while they were still very young and were never able to get a documented immigration status. The DACA program allows them to stay—to go to college, work, apply for services, and start a family—without living under constant fear of deportation.
Or at least that’s the idea. The reality is that Dreamers do live under constant fear of deportation, because Republicans exist. These Republicans are forever threatening to dismantle DACA and, with it, the temporary security the program affords. It took Jeff Sessions all of eight months into the Trump presidency to announce that he was canceling the program, and Republicans spent the next three years trying to end it and prevent new Dreamers from signing up, and threatening to deport people already under its protection.
The reason Trump and his henchmen were able to try this is that DACA is just an enforcement decree issued through executive action by the president, initially Obama. It doesn’t offer Dreamers “amnesty” or citizenship or permanent residency, or even a way to get permanent residency. It just offers them the agreement that the Executive Branch, the current Executive Branch, will not pursue deportation actions against them if they come forward and enroll in the program. DACA is basically the Dread Pirate Roberts solution to their situation: “Good night, Dreamers. Good work. Sleep well. We’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”
For true protection and status, Dreamers need a law, not an executive order. In March, the 2021 version of the Dream Act (now called the American Dream and Promise Act) was passed in Congress, and this week, nine years after Obama first instituted the DACA program, it was sent up to the Senate for a vote. There, however, it is expected to fail. Again. Republicans have filibustered versions of the Dream Act five times over the years to avoid taking an on-the-record vote and are expected to do so again. And, once again, the Democrats are expected to lack the will or decency to break the filibuster and give these Dreamers the legal protections they so desperately need.
It’s worth noting that Republicans rarely muster any arguments against Dreamers. Instead, they use them as a political football, unloading about “migrants” or “criminals” or really anybody other than people who were brought here as children and have been given no path to achieve legal status. Dreamers are not asking for “amnesty,” for they committed no crime. They’re asking for a process, any process the government wants to come up with, that allows them to stay in the only country they’ve ever known. They’re being denied relief purely out of Republican spite for nonwhite immigrants.
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Dreamers are an easy group for Democrats to rally behind, but the energy for their cause wavers as soon as they are in power. Part of the problem is that a lot of Democrats, especially ones who don’t follow the courts that closely, have been lulled into a false sense of security by various courts’ rejection of Trump’s bumbling attempts to get rid of DACA during his administration. Again and again, Trump was blocked from killing the program by lawsuits, court orders, and eventually a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in which Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberals (before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died) and ruled that Trump’s attempt to wind down the program was arbitrary and capricious. This ruling followed years of Republican attempts to get DACA declared unconstitutional, and those arguments were also roundly rejected by federal courts.
But what people don’t get is that DACA remains on the shakiest ground possible. It’s really not hard for a new president to undo the executive orders of the previous administration. “Not arbitrary and capricious” is the lowest legal standard, and Trump’s failure to meet it stemmed from his own and his administration’s incompetence. “Mexico is not sending their best” is not a legally justifiable reason to end a federal program, but the next Republican administration will surely come up with a more effective excuse to wield its clear executive authority and repeal the program. We cannot count on future Republican administrations’ being as bad at law as Trump’s was.
Unfortunately, the Democrats’ resistance to defanging Republicans when they have a chance seems to permeate the Biden administration’s whole approach to immigration issues. Democrats spent four years decrying and actually crying about racist Trumpian policies, but now that they’re in charge, we’re seeing something less than a complete repudiation of Stephen Millerism. Biden initially kept in place Trump-era caps on refugees (until he was functionally shouted down). And sending the vice president on a Central American tour to tell desperate people “do not come” and “you will be turned back” is hardly the moral or humanitarian message most of his people voted for.
The problem with the Biden approach was made obvious earlier this month when his administration released its proposed budget for the Department of Homeland Security. The proposal included $7.9 billion for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, half of which is earmarked for detention and deportation of immigrants, which is basically what Trump did.
ICE should be abolished. It’s a borderline-terrorist organization that grabs people out of their homes in the middle of the night and sends them away. Its enforcers hunt for people at work, at court, and at the bus stop. Its very existence dissuades people from doing beneficial societal activities—like reporting crime or obeying evacuation orders ahead of natural disasters or filling out the Census form.
Biden defenders will argue that he has given the agency new, more humane orders, but that entirely misses the point. This agency, if allowed to go on, can turn on a dime against the very concept of human rights. It cannot be used “for good”; it can only be unleashed against people the administration deems undeserving of procedural protection and personal safety. It is a bomb, and the way to handle it is to defuse it and drop it into the ocean—not fully fund it while painting a smiley face on its side.
The Biden administration and Democrats in general have an important question to answer: Did they ever actually care about stopping the bigoted human rights disasters of the Trump administration, or was that just a convenient talking point by virtue-signaling white liberals? I thought the antics of Kirstjen Nielsen and Chad Wolf were the crimes against humanity of our time. I thought we all agreed that Miller was a dangerous white supremacist whose agenda needed to be eradicated from the body politic. I thought this administration would embrace new Americans and defend them against the unrelenting xenophobia of white conservatives acting in bad faith. Was I wrong?
Look, I like the gooey, neoliberal, white-people-approved claptrap of increasing “legal” immigration for “skilled workers” to “help the American economy” as much as the next guy. I’m happy the Biden administration is doing that, and I’m sure it polls well enough with white ladies in a diner somewhere. But I care more about the people fleeing war and poverty. I care more about extending dignity and respect to all people, regardless of immigration status. I care more about not banishing people who have lived in this country all their lives, and I care about them regardless of whether they’ve learned to code.
Republicans hold Dreamers and immigrants as hostages in their long-term battle to erect (or maintain) a white ethno-state in the United States. Democrats need to use their power to free them now, while they still have a chance. Otherwise, they’re just handing Republicans back a loaded rifle and hoping that they miss their target a second time.