On the same day that President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would make many, if not most, unauthorized immigrants living in the United States priorities for deportation, he took pains to reassure one group of unauthorized immigrants: unauthorized immigrants who’ve been protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Obama.
"We're going to take care of everybody,” Trump told ABC News’s David Muir on Wednesday. “Where you have great people who are here [and] who have done a good job — they shouldn't be worried."
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said similar things in the past, and made the point again Wednesday in an interview with Greta Van Susteren: “They don't have to worry. We're focused on physical security of the border, we're focused on those who are coming to do us harm, from terrorist states and [...] violent criminals.”
Ryan’s words, though, are empty promises — he and Congress don’t control which unauthorized immigrants the government “focuses” on, and the executive order Trump signed on Wednesday explicitly tells border agents to prioritize people who could be charged with “any criminal offense” (which, for unauthorized immigrants, can include working or driving).
That executive order doesn’t put DACA recipients at risk yet. But Trump is known to be considering an end to the program. Vox received what appears to be a draft of an executive order that would halt the issuing of new DACA grants and the renewing of existing ones, forcing current DACA recipients to lose their protections one by one over the next two years. Trump is ultimately the person who will determine if DACA recipients have reason to worry or not.
So his comments Wednesday don’t mean that he is definitely keeping DACA around. Other comments from Trump himself and members of his administration, and reporting from (among others) Robert Costa of the Washington Post, have all indicated that Trump really is still figuring out what to do with DACA.
His reticence on this issue is striking. As of Wednesday, his executive orders (and one that is expected that will restrict refugees and certain immigrants) already remake whole swaths of US immigration policy. Only when it comes to DACA is he proceeding with any semblance of caution.
DACA exists because DREAMers are both politically sympathetic and well-resourced
This is hardly the first time that unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children have been singled out for sympathetic treatment. Indeed, that’s the whole reason DACA exists to begin with.
The DREAM Act, the bill considered by Congress multiple times over the Bush and Obama administrations (and the origin of the term “DREAMers,” still used to describe DACA recipients and those who qualify for DACA), was often positioned as a moderate alternative to comprehensive immigration reform with a broad pathway to citizenship for all unauthorized immigrants.
The messaging distinguished DREAMers from their parents. The government didn’t have to reward people who chose to come here illegally, the argument went, but it ought to show some compassion for people who’d “been brought” to the US “through no fault of their own,” who had grown up in the US and were “Americans in all but name.”
DREAMers were considered morally pure and pragmatically desirable. Valedictorians are often trotted out as representative DREAMers. While actual DACA recipients are likely to be in their 20s and 30s — someone in high school when the DREAM Act was first introduced, in 2001, would be 30 or older now — the stereotypical DREAMer has remained a high school or college student, blameless and bright-futured. They are the quintessential “good immigrant.”
To the extent that this messaging isn’t used anymore, it’s largely because of the efforts of DREAMers themselves, who resist the idea that their parents should be implicitly villainized in order to make them appear more sympathetic themselves. But the fact that DREAMers have had so much power in shaping the message of the immigrant rights movement gets to the other reason they’re so politically compelling: They are a well-resourced and well-organized interest group.
Demographically speaking, DREAMers are better positioned to advocate for their interests than other unauthorized immigrants: They’re more likely to be fluent in English, they’re integrated into their communities, and they’re often “out” as unauthorized and in touch with activist networks. That makes them much harder to deport — something the Obama administration found out in some high-profile cases during its first term — and harder to ignore.
Obama’s solution to this was DACA, which reinforced both DREAMers’ sympathetic nature and their strength. DACA recipients are, generally, making more money now that they can work legally — giving them more resources to fight a deportation case. They are also more likely to be integrated into society now that they’re formally protected from deportation. And as cruel as it seems to many Americans to deport people they think of as blameless children, it’s arguably crueler to take official government recognition and security away from someone who hasn’t done anything to provoke the revocation, and who handed all of her personal information over to the government in order to receive protection.
What happens when Trump starts picking on people with constituencies in the United States?
When Vox received, and subsequently published, what appear to be six draft executive orders dealing with immigration, I was struck by the difference between the three that were widely known about at the time (the two that came down yesterday dealing with border and interior enforcement, and the widely rumored order restricting refugees and future immigrants) — and the rest.
The three apparent draft orders that Trump hasn’t rushed to sign — the order sunsetting DACA, and two proposals regarding tighter enforcement of work visas and benefits — would all have natural constituencies within the US resisting them. A DACA revocation would get serious pushback from both DREAMers themselves and the politicians in both parties allied with them. The proposals to restrict benefits would affect both legal immigrants currently in the US (who would put themselves at risk of losing their legal status by using benefits like Medicaid) and the US citizen children of unauthorized immigrants (who would no longer qualify their parents for the child tax credit). Meanwhile, changes to work visas would affect not only legal immigrants currently here on those visas but also business interests that align with at least some in the Trump administration.
This week’s orders, on the other hand, don’t have natural political constituencies. They deal with immigrants who haven’t arrived yet, or with “criminal” unauthorized immigrants. (In practice, the label “criminal” is going to be applied to people who wouldn’t meet a commonsense definition of the term, but it’s hard to make that case in the abstract.) The orders will be extremely aggressive in practice, but politically they’re not fights in which the administration faces powerful antagonists.
President Trump and the White House advisers drafting his executive orders may not see much of a distinction between people currently in the US and those not here yet, or between DREAMers and other unauthorized immigrants. But this week’s actions — and inactions — suggest they are at least aware that other people do see that distinction. The question is whether the Trump administration's ideology is strong enough that it's willing to pick the hard fights, too.