Trump’s Daca dilemma-and dodge
By Anthony ZurcherNorth
The Trump administration has confirmed it’s ending the Obama-era programme called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca). Now the president – and Congress – must grapple with the political fallout.
It won’t be a hard break. Current enrollees will be allowed to maintain their normalised residency status until the expiration of their current two-year permits, and renewals for those whose status ends within the next six months will be processed until the end of September.
Nevertheless, the move is a significant change for the more than 840,000 long-time US residents who entered the nation without documentation when they were under the age of 16 and accepted Barack Obama’s offer to emerge from the legal shadows.
It also represents a new challenge for the politicians in Washington.
Trump stays off the stage.
For once, Mr Trump avoided the spotlight following a major presidential decision. Instead, the administration provided an off-the record briefing for reporters, followed by an on-camera statement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions – after which he took no questions.
The former Alabama senator said the administration was doing the “compassionate” move by ending the programme over the course of two years, rather than risk having a court rule Daca illegal and instantly end protections for formerly covered immigrants.
He – and other administration officials – overstated the unanimity of the opinion in the legal world as to the validity of Mr Obama’s order, but there was a very real possibility that a federal judge would have suspended the programme if a group of Republican-controlled states followed through with their threat to file a lawsuit.
The president perhaps took a back seat on Tuesday because Daca protections are generally popular with Americans, who have sympathy for young adults in the programme, many of whom have no recollection of their previous home countries. This is a presidential decision that will have a very human face and very real consequences.
The president would eventually issue a statement of his own, largely echoing Mr Sessions’ legal arguments and putting the onus on Congress to work on “responsible immigration reform”.
Would that include Daca-like protections? Mr Trump wasn’t clear – but, as always, his Twitter feed might offer some suggestions.
“Congress get ready to do your job,” he wrote. “Daca!”
By Tuesday evening he had cast the finality of his decision into question, writing: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”
In Congress’s court
The journey from telling Congress to “do its job” and actually getting legislation on the president’s desk is a long one, even with the president raising questions about whether he plans to follow through with his decision. Despite Republican control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, significant legislative achievements have been few and far between during the Trump presidency.
What’s more, Congress has been grappling with this particular issue for more than 15 years to no avail. The closest they came was during the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2010, when the House passed a Daca-like bill, but it failed to get the 60 votes in the Senate necessary to break a Republican filibuster.
Conservatives were largely united in opposition, joined by a handful of Democrats. That prompted Mr Obama’s unilateral executive action, which he framed as an exercise in presidential “prosecutorial discretion”, buttressed by a process that granted legal status only to those who had come to the US as children, lived on Americ’a soil for at least 10 years, had a clean criminal record and had completed high school or served in the military.
Now Congress must act if it wants to preserve the programme. Legislators haven’t always responded well to the threat of doomsday deadlines, however. Back in 2013 they faced severe across-the-board budget cuts unless they reached a compromise to trim the federal deficit. They didn’t, and the so-called “sequestration” budget rules have hamstrung legislators ever since.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina announced on Tuesday they were introducing a bill to codify Daca similar to previous efforts, but a stand-alone measure isn’t what the Trump administration has in mind.
According to the White House, any Daca reinstatement should be part of comprehensive immigration reform that includes strengthened border security, a change to merit-based immigration and cuts to overall legal immigration numbers. The legislative process for such a measure – even under favourable circumstances – could drag on for months.
The circumstances, however, are less than favourable. Democrats are likely not interested in anything other than straight-up Daca re-instatement. Funding for Mr Trump’s Mexican border wall, for instance, would be a non-starter.
As for Republicans? Similar to other recent big-ticket items on the legislative agenda, there’s far from unanimity on how to proceed.
A Republican Party divided
In announcing the administration’s decision to “wind down” Daca, Mr Sessions didn’t just argue that the Obama-era policy was presidential overreach of questionable legality. While much of his statement was about upholding “the rule of law”, he also made clear he thought Daca was bad policy.
“The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences,” the attorney general said. “It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”
In his press statement, Mr Trump was equally explicit, drawing the line between Daca recipients – many of whom have lived in the US for most of their lives – and “Americans”.
“We must remember that young Americans have dreams too,” Mr Trump said. “Being in government means setting priorities. Our first and highest priority in advancing immigration reform must be to improve jobs, wages and security for American workers and their families.”
Many Republicans in Congress – even those who have in the past criticised Obama’s executive action – have offered a more supportive tone in backing legislation that provides Daca recipients with legal status.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said he hopes Congress can ensure that “those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country”.
Senator John McCain was more blunt, calling Mr Trump’s decision the “wrong approach”.
“I believe that rescinding Daca at this time is an unacceptable reversal of the promises and opportunities that have been conferred on these individuals,” he said in a press release.
Meanwhile, battle lines are forming on the other side of the debate, as well. Ann Coulter, a conservative columnist who was an early supporter of candidate Trump’s tough immigration rhetoric, had a warning to congressional Republicans.
“Millions of voters not only won’t vote for Donald Trump again, but will never vote Republican again if they pass this Daca amnesty,” she tweeted.
A presidential dilemma
A bit of executive leadership on this issue would likely go a long way toward helping unite the Republican Party, but that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. The president himself, at times, has appeared as divided as his party.
While he campaigned on the immediate termination of all Mr Obama’s “illegal” executive orders – including Daca – he’s since been much more equivocal, saying that deciding what to do about these so-called DREAMers has been “very tough”.
This isn’t the first time the president, who likes to fashion himself as a decisive executive, has played Hamlet on the national stage. There was similarly professed soul-searching prior to his announcement that he was increasing US forces in Afghanistan and withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord.
The Afghanistan move ran counter to candidate Trump’s campaign pledge to reduce US exposure there and exposed a rift between his military aides and the more nativist leanings of some of his political advisers.
The other moments of doubt and reflection revealed tension between White House hard-liners and moderates in the White House, including daughter Ivanka Trump, who serves as a presidential close adviser and confidante.
And with both the climate agreement and Daca, Ivanka and other White House, moderates were on the losing side.
In a White House that has been wracked at times by palace intrigue, it’s interesting to note where the president has seemed the most torn. On military matters, the generals tend to prevail. But when it comes to domestic issues, the president usually tilts towards the promises he made to his base, even if the establishment – and his daughter – advise otherwise.
Nearly a million in limbo
Over the coming days and weeks Washington may be obsessed with the political implications of this decision. What does it mean for the president’s popularity? What are the risks for moderate Republicans in Congress already facing tough re-elections next year? Which party can gain the upper hand in the coming battles?
Outside of the nation’s capital, the president’s decision will have very real consequences for Daca beneficiaries. In six months, individuals who had emerged from the legal shadows – who had provided their names and pertinent information to the US government in exchange for normalised immigration status – will start to be plunged back into darkness.
Even though the Trump administration has said that they will not be prioritised for deportation, the sense of security and benefits these long-time US residents enjoyed will be gone.
For some Americans, this is a cold but hard truth for those who violated the law, even if they did so as children. For others, it is an avoidable tragedy – one of the president’s making.
For Daca recipients, the countdown clock is now ticking.