On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, “has been rescinded”. The program provided protection from deportation and a number of benefits to undocumented immigrants who had been brought into the United States as children without their express consent. DACA beneficiaries, known as “Dreamers”, will remain under the program for the next six months. The number of Dreamers affected by the decision is estimated at 800,000. President Donald Trump has made clear his expectation that the United States Congress will produce legislation that covers the DACA cases and, more broadly, begins to repair what most observers agree is, as Republican Senator John McCain put it, “a broken immigration system”.
Although he was vocal in his desire to end illegal immigration to the United States, particularly from Mexico, during his presidential campaign, Trump has said that the decision to end DACA was a difficult one. “I do not favor punishing children”, he said in a written statement, but his decision is appropriate “because we are a nation of laws”.
Opponents of DACA indeed have the law on their side. Before DACA, Dreamers were living in the United States unlawfully, and while many were brought as young children, the majority are adults today. When President Barack Obama instituted it in 2012, critics immediately charged that the program rewarded breaking the law. In addition, the way in which Obama put DACA in place was questionable. Like Trump, Obama wanted Congress to take care of the immigration issue, and resorted to executive action only when it became clear that would not happen. Attorneys General from several states, including Texas, had been planning to sue the government for upholding what they believe is an unconstitutional program before Sessions’ announcement.
It is plain that the Trump administration believes that this move, rescinding DACA but allowing for a six-month grace period, puts pressure on Congress to get something done. There’s also little doubt that, as both congressional houses are currently dominated by Republicans, Trump expects the resulting immigration legislation to be highly restrictive of new arrivals and punitive of lawbreakers.
Supporters of DACA counter that the legal issue should be secondary to moral concerns. Is it fair to deport young adults who have spent most of their lives in the United States? Many of them, it’s often argued, know only the United States and have no memory of living anywhere else. Many of them are college graduates. Many more work and pay taxes. Are they not, in every sense but the juridical one, American? This position demands a compassionate attitude that was at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s narrative, and quite absent from that of the Trump Administration.
Trump’s electoral victory clearly shows that many Americans believe illegal immigrants are lawbreakers who deserve to be punished. Some prominent Trump supporters, such as Stephen Bannon, are convinced that immigration (both legal and illegal) is a danger to America and Americans, either for economic reasons – immigrants take away jobs from American citizens – or cultural/racial ones – immigrants are different from, and inferior to, “real” Americans. If this is the dominant view in American culture, there’s little hope for Dreamers staying in the United States legally.
The long-term prospects for this view look dim. The American population, whether Trump followers like it or not, is steadily becoming less white, as immigrants become an ever larger percentage of the population. The idea that America needs protecting from foreigners, or that the government’s goal should be to “make America great again,” will diminish as more and more Americans grow up with a foreign-born parent, in schools full of immigrants or children of immigrants. All those white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who so fervently wish to maintain the purity of their country will have to make their peace with their children, or if not, certainly their grandchildren, playing with, hanging out with, and marrying people of different races, colors, and origins. The United States will be then, as it has always been, a nation full of Dreamers.