Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals offers undocumented youth short-term reprieves from deportation and work authorization. Five years into its existence, it benefits nearly 800,000 young people. And Trump may soon move to fulfill his campaign promise of ending it.
DACA was the key immigration victory of the Obama era, and was one of Trump’s prime targets for dissolution when he was on the campaign trail. For the last eight months, Trump has left the program in place. But, according to recent reports from Axios and The Washington Post, the Trump administration is considering changes to the program, seeking to head off a deadline set by a group of conservative attorneys general who have threatened to challenge the program’s legality—unless the federal government dismantles it first.
These are not the first rumors to spread about the potential dismantling of the program. But they do come just days before September 5, a date arbitrarily set by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. In late June, Paxton and attorneys general from 10 states sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling on the federal government to rescind DACA or get ready for a lawsuit.
Texas and dozens of other states initially sued the Obama administration over DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), a 2014 program that sought to expand on DACA by granting similar protections to the parents of children who were American citizens and legal permanent residents. In June the Trump administration rescinded the DAPA memo, formally killing the program. It was a move more symbolic than anything. DAPA had never gone into effect. Thanks to the Texas lawsuit, a district judge put the program on hold before it could be implemented. Now Paxton is back with new threats: Shut down DACA or he will amend his original lawsuit to also challenge the legality of DACA.
In so many ways, the timing is perfect for Paxton and those who oppose immigrant rights. Trump has successfully whipped up anti-immigrant nativism over the last two years. Most important for the fate of DACA, Sessions has never been a fan of the program, and even applauded Paxton’s letter.
“I’ve got to tell you, I like it that our states and localities are holding the federal government to account, expecting us to do what is our responsibility to the state and locals, and that’s to enforce the law,” Sessions told Fox after he’d received Paxton’s letter.
Before he was promoted to chief of staff, then–Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in July that he wasn’t confident DACA would hold up in court to a legal challenge, and would not commit to defending it. Immigrant-rights advocates maintain that the program is perfectly constitutional. And Kelly noted that he personally supports the program. Trump himself has repeatedly offered his support for the program, pledging to treat DACA recipients “with heart.”
But, because of both the Trump administration’s capriciousness and the provisional nature of the program, the administration’s every utterance about the fate of the program becomes magnified. DACA exists only at the discretion of the president and can be dismantled with the stroke of a pen.
The fact that DACA still exists at all is proof that whatever the Trump administration is wrestling with are political and not legal problems, said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “If they believed it was not legal, they would have terminated it within days of Trump coming into office,” she noted on Friday, ticking off the myriad other executive actions Trump pursued shortly after his inauguration.
Instead, USCIS, the agency that runs the program, has continued to accept and process new and renewal applications. According to Hincapie, about 200,000 young people have been able to apply for or renew their DACA status during the Trump administration.
Among those who benefit from the program are Jung Woo Kim, who has been organizing a 24-hour vigil with the Korean-American immigrant-rights organization NAKASEC outside the White House since August 15 to defend the program. “If someone asked me what DACA really meant, I don’t think it’s just a piece of paper or just executive action,” Kim said on Friday. “I think it’s more my life. It’s my life in danger.”
The campaign to defend DACA began in earnest at the start of the year. At this point, 20 attorneys general, led by Xavier Becerra from California, have come out in support of DACA. A group of more than 100 mayors and local officials signed a letter of support for the program. And undocumented youth have been returning to their direct-action roots. Damaris Gonzalez, a Texas resident and DACA recipient, even confronted Paxton to his face in August, asking him why he was trying to deport the Texas resident. He reportedly told Gonzalez he was trying to do things “the legal way.”
“This is exactly what racist politicians want,” Gonzalez said Friday. “They want for us to not have a way out. They want to put us in a circle where they take away all our resources. They know we are a threat to them.”
Kim said NAKASEC plans to stay until the September 5 deadline. “We have a base in front of the White House. We have drums. We have water. Just come,” Kim said. “I don’t know if Trump will welcome you. We will welcome you.”