On Wednesday, during an impromptu press conference at the White House, President Donald Trump had nothing but love and comfort for the 690,000 young unauthorized immigrants affected by the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“Tell them not to worry,” he said of the DACA recipients whose protections will expire (or have already expired) because of his decision last September to wind down the Obama-era program.
If Congress can’t make a deal by March 5 — the deadline Trump had given lawmakers to create a permanent replacement for the protections his administration was rescinding — he suggested he might simply extend that deadline: “I might do that. I might do that.”
But on Thursday, on a call with House Republicans to unveil the White House’s proposed immigration framework, the message from administration officials was much darker.
“They warned that if no deal is reached, DACA recipients will face deportation when the program fully expires on March 5,” the New York Times reported. “One senior official said the young immigrants would not be targeted, but are ‘illegal immigrants’ who would be processed for deportation if they came into contact with immigration officers.”
The warning was an apparent attempt to pressure members of Congress into accepting an immigration deal that they might not otherwise be terribly excited about. But it was also the truth.
As is so often the case with this White House, the president, when he told DACA recipients “not to worry,” wasn’t speaking for his administration. Even the warning from administration officials understated the threat facing DACA recipients: It’s real, and for many of them, it is now.
The reassuring talk by Trump and some members of Congress about DACA has sprung up whenever it starts to look doubtful that Congress and Trump will agree on a DACA deal in the near future (or at all). But it misrepresents what the Trump administration is actually doing, and what could happen next.
After four and a half months, many of the people in Washington who hold DREAMers’ fates in their hands still haven’t taken the responsibility to understand, and clearly communicate about, the reality facing the immigrants these politicians profess to care about.
The people who would be deporting DREAMers know that such deportations are possible. And so do DREAMers themselves, who are now watching a legislative debate unfold while understanding, viscerally, what’s at stake. “We have so many questions still,” one husband of a DACA recipient said, “and are quite worried.” But they’re waiting for the rest of the world — and government — to wake up.
We don’t need to speculate about whether someone will be picked up by ICE after losing DACA. It’s already happened.
Donald Trump wants to have it both ways. He wants to “show great heart” for unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children. But he also began winding down the program, DACA, that had given them some assurances that they’d be able to stay and work legally in the US. He wants to demand stepped-up enforcement and cuts to legal immigration in exchange for any legalization of DACA recipients, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge the possibility that this means a deal might not get made — and that people will start losing DACA en masse in the coming weeks.
Trump is like other Republicans in this regard. No politician wants to admit that a sympathetic DREAMer, as these young undocumented immigrants are known, could get deported due to their inaction. Speaker Paul Ryan told a DACA-recipient mother in December 2016 that she had nothing to worry about; more recently, both Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen have answered questions about DACA recipients’ futures by saying they won’t be “targeted” for deportation.
All of these statements are designed to create the impression that no matter what Congress does, no one who has or had DACA is going to actually get deported anytime soon.
That bears no relation to reality.
For one thing, the March 5 deadline doesn’t mark the date that people start losing DACA; it marks the date that the pace of people losing DACA hits an inflection point, from the 122 people a day currently losing DACA protection to nearly 1,000 people or more a day. In other words, young undocumented immigrants have been losing DACA protection for months. (Complicating all this slightly is that under a recent court order, US Citizenship and Immigration Services is currently accepting renewal applications — though USCIS hasn’t actually issued any renewals under this order yet.)
And despite Trump and other Republicans’ reassuring words to the people losing DACA, those immigrants aren’t being protected from deportation. DACA granted them protection from deportation. Those are now expiring. Now they’re as vulnerable as everyone else.
The Trump administration’s first major policy decision on immigration was to take the “handcuffs” off Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents — to rescind Obama-era memos that had told them whom to prioritize (and deprioritize) for deportation, and to promise field agents that they would have discretion to pick up unauthorized immigrants whenever they felt it was necessary. ICE Director Tom Homan has said, repeatedly, that if you are in the US without papers, you should not feel safe from deportation.
We don’t have to speculate that this wider net extends to people who have lost DACA, because it has already happened. In Pennsylvania, former DACA recipient Osman Enriquez is in pending deportation proceedings after getting pulled over on his way to work in November and turned over to ICE. (He was detained for four days and released after public outcry.)
He had DACA, then he didn’t, then he got arrested, then he got detained, and he could be deported.
I don’t know how many other cases like Enriquez’s there are. There might not be many, or any. It’s true that ICE isn’t actively tracking down immigrants the minute their work permits expire, and that most people whose DACA has expired haven’t been detained. But the answer to the question of whether losing DACA could make an immigrant vulnerable to deportation is: yes.
Trump could change this. He could direct the Department of Homeland Security to issue a memo to ICE field agents telling them not to arrest and deport immigrants who had had DACA unless they’ve committed an unrelated crime. (In other words, he could put the handcuffs back on ICE agents.) He could reopen DACA applications specifically for people who are otherwise facing deportation. He could even unilaterally extend work permits issued under DACA for another six months past their current expiration dates (though that might not help the people who’ve already lost their protections, and it would only work if local police officers and ICE agents all knew and respected that documents that looked expired really weren’t).
Trump may not know he could do these things, but he could, and he isn’t. And while members of Congress quietly (or publicly) float the idea every few weeks that Trump could “extend” the DACA deadline, simply declaring the deadline is “extended” would do exactly nothing without these other steps — steps that the administration won’t take as long as everyone assumes DACA recipients have nothing to worry about.
Worry is about more than the risk of deportation
When Trump said last September that he was giving Congress six months to come up with a solution for DACA recipients, it made a certain kind of sense: Instead of ending the program immediately, and forcing hundreds of thousands of immigrants to live in unauthorized limbo while waiting for Congress to make a deal, the delay would give enough time for a smooth transition.
But Congress and Trump have frittered away most of that time. And the way the administration has handled the drawdown of DACA has been anything but smooth.
As a result, one DACA recipient told me last week, “Every night I worry. And every morning I wonder what announcement will come today about DACA and DREAMers.”
That DACA recipient has a lease expiring soon, and with only a few months left on her current work permit, she had been afraid to renew it.
She and the other DACA recipients facing the expiration of their work permits in the next few months don’t know whether they’ll get renewals in time to keep their jobs, or whether they’ll have to be fired and then hope they can get rehired if a renewal comes. They don’t know how long they’d have to wait without income in those circumstances, or have to find work under the table for much less pay and no dignity — or whether even that would be impossible. They don’t know whether they can renew their drivers’ licenses, or continue to qualify for in-state college tuition.
That’s not nothing to worry about.
Immigrants know very well at this point that what a president says isn’t what his administration does. The situation right now, in which the president reassures immigrants who grew up in the US that they won’t be deported but isn’t actually ordering ICE to heed that as an order, is similar to the state of play under Obama in 2011 — the situation that ultimately forced Obama to create DACA to begin with, to make sure that DREAMers actually wouldn’t be deported.
No avowal from Trump’s mouth or his tweeting fingers could reach the people Trump is ostensibly trying to comfort. The only assurance they could trust would be from the pen in his hands as he signs a bill that gives them permanent legal status.
In the meantime, such assurances from Trump — or anyone else who isn’t personally directing his administration’s field agents — should be understood for what they are. Lines about “not worrying” or theories about a DACA “extension” aren’t for immigrants themselves. They’re for the rest of the public, who might be angered by the prospect of DREAMers being deported but might be assuaged by Trump’s reassurance. They’re also for policymakers, telling them that there isn’t really any urgency to coming up with a DACA deal because nothing too awful will really happen if they don’t.
The worst thing that could happen to DACA recipients and DREAMers would be for the public and Congress to listen to the president’s “not to worry” rhetoric. After all, these young immigrants are worried about what will happen in Congress; sharing their concern seems like the least one could do.