In June, the attorney general of Tennessee joined Republican officials from 10 other states (led by Texas) to threaten the Trump administration: If you don’t end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) by September 5, we’ll do it for you.
Now, with that deadline looming — and with Trump expected to make an announcement Tuesday that is more likely than not to end protections for the 800,000 immigrants covered by DACA — Tennessee’s AG has had an apparent and sudden change of heart.
“There is a human element to this, however, that is not lost on me and should not be ignored,” state Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III wrote a letter to the state’s senators, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) and Sen. Bob Corker (R). “Many of the DACA recipients, some of whose records I reviewed, have outstanding accomplishments and laudable ambitions, which if achieved, will be of great benefit and service to our country. They have an appreciation for the opportunities afforded them by our country.”
He wrote that his office had changed its mind and “decided not to challenge DACA in the litigation.” He urged his state’s senators to support a “better approach”: granting permanent legal status to the immigrants currently covered by DACA, by supporting and passing the DREAM Act, proposed in its latest iteration by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Legally, the argument is fairly consistent: It’s possible to believe that DACA was unconstitutional as a use of executive power, but that the people it’s protected should be allowed to become legal immigrants and eventually citizens. But usually, a state official doesn’t threaten to sue to stop a policy unless he wants the policy to go away — and Slatery’s clearly gotten cold feet on that front.
A single defection might not be enough to persuade Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to soften on his September 5 deadline. (Indeed, as of Thursday, he was sticking to the deadline despite a reported request from the White House to extend it — and despite the fact that his state is reckoning with one of the worst natural disasters in American history.)
But it’s a seriously good sign for DACA recipients in the medium run.
Slatery’s letter inadvertently expresses an important truth: Even Republicans who like to think of themselves as tough on immigration (such that, for example, they’ll join coalitions to sue the federal government over “amnesty”) don’t necessarily want to be on the hook for deporting people who’ve grown up in the US. They may not relish the idea of legalizing unauthorized immigrants, but they don’t really want this particular group kicked out (or to be blamed if they are). From this perspective, the issue just needs to go away.
Congress and the White House successfully avoided it for six months. But then the state AGs stepped in to force Trump’s hand. And even though Congress reportedly wanted the White House to delay the announcement so that it wasn’t happening the same day Congress came back from recess to an unbelievably busy September session, it wasn’t really in Trump’s control — it was in the states’.
The fact that some of the pressure to make the DACA problem go away has broken through to one of the state officials responsible for starting it indicates that pressure may be powerful indeed.
And then there’s the solution that Slatery endorses: the DREAM Act. There are actually three bills that have been proposed to protect DACA recipients if Trump ends the program, and the DREAM Act is by far the most expansive — it offers legal status that can eventually become citizenship, with few qualifications on which of the existing DACA recipients are eligible for it.
Slatery could have endorsed one of the more conservative bills. But he didn’t. He endorsed the bill that immigration advocates and Democrats have been pressing for. That’s not just a desire to make the issue go away — it’s an apparent (belated) realization that at least one prominent Republican really wants DREAMers to stay.