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The questions that 800,000 people are waiting for Trump and Jeff Sessions to answer about DACA

If Trump ends DACA but doesn’t explain how, he could plunge immigrants into panic.

Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group via Getty

On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to announce that six months from now, the Trump administration will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which currently protects nearly 800,000 unauthorized immigrants from deportation and allows them to work legally in the US.

But if that’s all Sessions says about the future of DACA, he won’t actually answer the most urgent questions about the fate of the program. It won’t provide the answers 800,000 people need in order to make decisions about their lives.

According to reports from Politico and other news outlets, Trump has all but decided to end DACA, in order to meet a deadline set by a group of state attorneys general who threatened to sue the administration if it continued the program. But the White House will apparently wait six months before taking action.

During the delay, theoretically, Congress could pass a bill that would grant either continued protections or full legal status to DACA-protected immigrants: unauthorized immigrants who entered the US before 2007 as children or young teens, and who meet educational and background check requirements.

Except that it still isn’t clear what “action” the administration is threatening to take after those six months.

DACA isn’t an indefinite grant of protection — recipients have to apply to renew it every two years. Which means there’s more than one way to end DACA, depending on what Trump decides to do about DACA renewals.

The most generous version of a six-month delay could allow nearly half of those who currently have DACA to keep their protections as late as spring 2020. The most draconian version could strip 800,000 people of work permits at once on March 5, 2018.

There are two big and so far unanswered questions about Trump’s decision:

  1. At the end of the six-month period, is the Trump administration going to revoke 800,000 existing DACA protections at once, or is it going to “sunset” the program by simply preventing people from renewing their protections when their current two-year window of protection expires?
  2. Will people be allowed to renew their DACA protections during that six-month period?

It doesn’t appear that even the White House knows what exactly it wants to do with DACA renewals; Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported Sunday that it was one of the “key details … still being worked out.” It’s not clear whether those details have been worked out in advance of Sessions’s announcement Tuesday. Nor is it certain that Sessions, whose Department of Justice isn’t actually responsible for administering DACA — and who isn’t taking questions after his Tuesday announcement — will explain what the decision means for DACA recipients.

Without that explanation, the six-month “delay” won’t be much comfort at all — it will just force them to spend six months (or longer) in psychological and economic limbo, even before having to deal on a daily basis with the manifest threat of deportation.

Is the Trump administration simply delaying mass chaos by six months?

Here’s the simplest, bluntest way the administration could end DACA: It could simply declare, on a certain day, that every work permit granted under the program was null and void, and that no one who’d been granted “deferred action” could use it to fight their deportations.

This option would cause chaos — whether or not it was announced six months in advance.

It would mean that hundreds of thousands of people who’d gone to work legally would suddenly become “illegal workers” in the office. It would raise questions about the validity of driver’s licenses issued under DACA — with licenses that were valid when an immigrant started the engine possibly invalidated while the car was on the road. It would open the federal government up to a mess of lawsuits from employers, who’d suddenly be opened up to legal liability. It would make the Trump administration’s attempt to implement its first travel ban in January look like a model of good government.

As of last week, it seemed unlikely that the administration was going to do this: As of Thursday, the rumor was that the Trump administration would simply stop granting new DACA protections, or renewing existing protections after the two-year window, effectively sunsetting the program. But that proposal appears to have been superseded by the idea of a “six-month delay.”

Indeed, the New York Times’ implication that the administration is trying to figure out whether or not to allow existing DACA recipients to renew during the six-month window indicates that there could be an even more draconian scenario in play: For the next six months, people who needed to renew their DACA status slowly lose their work permits, and then the remainder lose their work permits when the program officially ends in March.

Depending on what happens with DACA renewals, a six-month delay could be a new lease on life — or utterly meaningless

If the Trump administration is planning to end DACA more gradually, by simply preventing existing DACA recipients from renewing, then a six-month delay should mean that people whose DACA protections would expire in the next six months should be allowed to renew. Otherwise, the six-month “delay” doesn’t actually mean anything at all: Nothing would change for DACA recipients between Tuesday and the day after the six-month period ends.

But if the administration does allow people to renew during the six-month delay, and then simply lets those renewals expire after two years, things look very different.

If the administration stopped approving applications in March 2018, DACA recipients would still start losing their protections soon after. But for the more than 225,000 people whose DACA protections will expire in the next six months, the delay would mean an additional two years — the last DACA recipients wouldn’t lose their protections and work permits until mid-2020.

It’s possible that even people whose DACA wasn’t going to expire before March 2018 would be able to renew it during that time. Currently, the federal government allows DACA recipients to apply for renewal early — it just warns them that they might end up not getting two full years of renewed protections, if their renewal gets approved before their current DACA protections expire. That wouldn’t be a concern if the alternative were not getting DACA approved at all.

An extremely generous six-month delay could actually allow nearly half of current DACA recipients — or more — to submit their applications during that period, and stop the first people from losing their DACA protections until September or October 2018:

It’s unlikely that the Trump administration, which has taken steps to make the legal immigration process harder and more complicated, is going to take a generous attitude toward renewing DACA protections when the program is already doomed. But the vast range of possibilities indicates just how important it is, to DACA recipients themselves, that the White House give them more information beyond “DACA will end after six months.”

The difference between any of these scenarios is a few hundred thousand people either knowing they have two years to remain in the US safely, work legally, and continue building the lives they’ve laid the foundation for over the past half-decade, or worrying that they are on the precipice of losing so much of what they’ve worked to build.

The uncertainty is already traumatizing immigrants

It isn’t speculating to say that an overly vague announcement that doesn’t answer the renewal question is going to plunge many immigrants into a state of panic.

That’s because it’s already happening.

On Sunday night, when Politico first reported Trump’s plans to end DACA after a six-month delay, many immigration advocacy groups stressed to their members that the decision wasn’t final, and that they could still fight for a better outcome over the next two days.

Other analysts raised questions about what the six-month delay really meant. But many immigrants themselves, including DACA recipients, were already plunged into uncertainty by the mere prospect of losing their protections — on whatever timetable, and at whatever pace:

At the same time, many DACA recipients are trying hard to maintain hope that they’ll be able to stay in the US — after all, it takes a lot to get someone to give up on the only life they can remember.

One DACA recipient who reached out to me on Sunday night is still waiting for the renewal he applied for months ago. If he doesn’t hear back from the government by September 16, he’ll lose his current work permit — and the paycheck he was counting on to save up for college. And he’ll lose any assurance that he won’t be picked up and deported by ICE agents at any time.

“Currently I feel fine,” he told me last night, despite all that. “I've lived here basically my entire life, so yeah it's weird and saddening that this is happening. But yeah, I'm hopeful.”

But that hope has an expiration date. And that date is less than two weeks away.

Trump doesn’t have six months to make a decision about that DACA recipient’s fate, or the fates of hundreds of thousands of people in similar situations. And if Sessions goes to a podium Tuesday and makes an announcement that doesn’t include “details,” he and the president will have told those DACA recipients only one thing: that they’re not safe, after all.