Donald Trump can’t decide if he wants to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the popular Obama-era policy that halted the deportations of undocumented immigrants who had come to the U.S. as children and are known as Dreamers. Even as the Department of Homeland Security has been gutting other immigration-enforcement policies set by the previous Administration, Trump has wavered on DACA for more than six months. He promised to revoke the policy when he was campaigning for President, but after taking office he began to have doubts. “We are going to deal with DACA with heart,” he said in February. “To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids.” As late as Friday, when the White House indicated a decision on the policy was imminent, Trump said, “We love Dreamers.”
Trump’s hesitation is proof of how successful Dreamers have become as political advocates. They have been telling their stories for close to two decades—about how they have grown up in this country, have gone to school here, and consider it home. A majority of Americans support giving Dreamers a path to citizenship; even more, close to two-thirds of the country, believe that they should be allowed to live without the daily threat of deportation.
DACA has allowed almost a million Dreamers to get work visas and driver’s licenses. Since the policy was put in place, in 2012, DACArecipients have seen their salaries more than double. They have bought cars, become homeowners, and qualified for bank loans and college financial aid. Ninety-seven per cent of them are either in school or the workforce. The U.S. economy would suffer significant costs if DACA is cancelled—hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade, according to reliable estimates. One of the key principles of DACA, which was created by executive order but never enshrined as law, was to formalize something that had long been taken for granted: Dreamers are inescapably American, and punishing them would upend the social and economic order. The massive popularity of Dreamers has given the policy political cover. No mainstream politician could challenge DACA without causing a significant public outcry.
In June, a group of conservative Republican state attorneys general, sensing Trump’s hesitation to end the program, tried to force his hand: they threatened to challenge DACA in federal court unless the President dismantled it by September 5th. To fight such a lawsuit, the Administration would have to take a position that is at odds with the views of the President’s core supporters, who oppose DACA. The attorneys general—led by Ken Paxton, of Texas—are daring the President to break with his base. On Friday, the attorney general of Tennessee, who was one of the ten state officials opposed to DACA, withdrew from the group under mounting public pressure to reconsider his position. He went on to urge the state’s senators to come to the Dreamers’ defense, citing a “human element.” But Paxton and the others refused to change their plans, even after the White House allegedly asked them to postpone their September 5th deadline.
“Up until now, the lives of the Dreamers themselves, their courage, and their willingness to tell their own stories—that’s what protected them, because that’s what makes it so unthinkable for the government to remove them,” Cecilia Muñoz, who, as the director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House, helped craft DACA, told me recently. “But you have to care about what the country thinks and what the media says for that protection to be real. Right now, the government is in the hands of some people who don’t care.” Members of the Obama Administration knew that the next President would have the power to end the program, but they didn’t think anyone would want to. “Dreamers are doing everything we ask of young people in the United States,” Janet Napolitano, who served as Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security and worked with Muñoz on DACA, said. “To make them subject to deportation, or to make them look over their shoulder every time they go out on the street, wondering if they’re going to get picked up by an ICE agent—it’s wrong from a values standpoint, from a legal standpoint, from a discretion standpoint, and from an enforcement standpoint.”
Congress can still step in to defend Dreamers, by passing a law granting them a path to citizenship or formalizing the protections afforded by DACA. Similar measures held bipartisan appeal not so long ago: in 2001, Senator Dick Durbin, of Illinois, a Democrat, and Senator Orrin Hatch, of Utah, a Republican, jointly proposed a path to citizenship, in a bill called the Dream Act. “For many years, there was no more eloquent spokesman for the Dream Act than Orrin Hatch,” Muñoz told me. “And that happened because the Dreamers went to speak to him, and he had the experience that so many others had on the Hill. He fell in love. He couldn’t imagine deporting people who grew up here.” Yet early Republican support for the Dream Act faded as immigration policy grew increasingly contentious during the Bush Administration. In 2010, with Obama in office, Democrats reintroduced the bill in the Senate. A number of Republicans who’d previously voted for earlier versions of the measure—including Hatch—voted against it, and it failed.
Trump will announce his decision on DACA by Tuesday, and it’s too early to predict what it might look like in practice if he fulfilled his earlier pledge to end it. “You can’t stop the program cold,” Muñoz told me. “How do you invalidate a work-authorization document that looks like every other work-authorization document you issue? It’s not like there’s a special one for DACA.” The White House has suggested that it may simply stop renewing DACA applications, which need to be updated every two years. If that were to happen, thousands of Dreamers would start losing DACA’s protections every week. Whether immigration authorities would then start specifically targeting Dreamers for deportation is an open question. The government has the personal information of every individual who signed up for DACA. Immigrants’-rights advocates have already begun advising DACA recipients not to open the doors if immigration agents are knocking.
In February, two ICE agents in Washington State arrested a DACA recipient named Daniel Ramírez, whom they accused—apparently falsely—of belonging to a gang. At the time, his case was seen as a test for the how the new Administration would treat DACA and whether Dreamers could still count on its protections. Ramírez was eventually released on bond, and his case is pending before an immigration judge.
One member of Ramírez’s legal team was a twenty-eight-year-old attorney named Luis Cortes, who is also a DACA recipient. Cortes has been practicing law in Washington State for four years, and during that time he’s represented hundreds of other DACA recipients, often on a pro-bono basis. I called him on Thursday evening, just as reports were coming out that Trump was planning to end DACA once and for all. “I didn’t think it would reach this low,” he said. “My instant reaction is this sinking gut feeling. Can I still be employed? I still have an ethical obligation to my clients. I have to represent them. But what do I do? I don’t know what to tell them. I’m just as sad as they are. I’m just as nervous as they are.”
Cortes came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a year old. His three younger siblings were born here, and are citizens. The policy changed Cortes, as it did so many other DACA recipients. “There was a significant shift in me personally pre- and post-DACA,” he said. “Before DACA, I was very shy. I was nervous about my peers finding out about my status and having problems. Before DACA, there were maybe two or three people outside of my family who knew about my undocumented status. I avoided the question of where I was actually born. I felt trapped. I’d have to come up with a ton of excuses.” His status had once forced him to turn down an academic scholarship, and then to pretend that he didn’t need it. “DACA provided protection, and not only that: recognition in society,” he said. “Post-DACA, I felt I could finally share very openly. Now that’s being taken away from us.”
Earlier this week, I asked Greisa Martínez, a DACA recipient and the advocacy director of United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant group in the country, what she made of Trump’s impending decision. “We are resoundingly committed to telling our stories,” she told me. “But this time is different than before. We’re operating in a world where Charlottesville happened; where Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio; where he doubled down on his support of white supremacists, in Phoenix last week,” she told me. “We are fighting. By holding the line on DACA, we are holding the line on our democracy being overrun by white supremacists. This even goes beyond immigration. We’re going to be telling a story about who America really is. There’s going to be a day after the Trump Administration, and we’re ready to build toward that moment.”