President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in six months is both a cruel act that will hurt some 800,000 innocent people and a fresh display of the president’s inability to grasp how Washington works. DACA could have been a bargaining chip to win other immigration concessions, starting with the president’s much-touted border wall, or fence.
But the simple fact is now it is up to Congress to decide the fate of these young Dreamers – people who were brought to America by their parents while minors and who have graduated from high school or served in the military and have constructive, positive lives through two-year work permits. Ultimately, this is in the best interests of democracy.
However well-intentioned they may be, presidential executive orders should not be allowed to overrule existing, plainly written federal laws because that violates the Constitution’s separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Before he issued the DACA order in 2012, that was for years President Obama’s stated view.
In less polarized times, congressional action to preserve DACA’s protections would have seemed likely. The Democrats sympathetic to these hardworking young men and women would have teamed with Republicans who had heeded warnings from more than 400 business leaders that continuing to issue permits to this group would strengthen the U.S. economy. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. – who has offered increasingly strong support for Dreamers in recent weeks – would work with Democrats to shape legislation that by itself would offer reassurance to the nearly 600,000 young immigrants whose work permits will expire after March 5 and now can’t be renewed. The president – who claimed Tuesday to “love” the Dreamers – would offer encouragement to Ryan and to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to enact reforms while explaining to his base that his hardline views on unauthorized immigrants who entered the U.S. without permission as adults remained in place. The humane sentiment expressed Tuesday by Obama would be heeded: “Whatever concerns or complaints Americans may have about immigration in general, we shouldn’t threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us.”
But our fear is Trump will let Attorney General Jeff Sessions take the lead on the issue, as he did Tuesday, when the DACA-loathing former Alabama senator – not the White House – announced the program’s days were numbered. Sessions is no more likely to support a congressional version of DACA than he is to change his retrograde views on criminal justice. Ryan will issue platitudes but won’t risk his political capital by taking on the House Freedom Caucus. And in six months, the U.S. government – with DACA residents’ addresses provided “when appropriate” by Homeland Security officials to immigration enforcers – could begin a crackdown.
That would likely please millions of Americans who support Trump and who want immigration laws rigidly enforced. But heartlessly dashing the hopes of 800,000 well-meaning Dreamers would be a self-defeating act that would mar America’s image as a beacon around the world. Ryan and McConnell need to rescue more than DACA. They need to rescue the idea of America as a land of compassion.