Many of the promises President Trump made while on the campaign trail — to protect the federal welfare state, to drain D.C. of Wall Street influence — have unsurprisingly been exposed as empty vows. But when he mobilized white nationalism on his road to the presidency, Trump was telling the truth about how he'd act in office. The announcement Tuesday that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will be ended is but the latest example of the real consequences of Trump's hostility to immigration — and don't count on Congress to pass a fix anytime soon.
DACA was implemented in 2012, via executive action by former President Barack Obama. It has allowed roughly 800,000 "DREAMers" — otherwise law-abiding young adults who were brought to the United States as unauthorized immigrants when they were children, and so named for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — to attain employment and education without immediate fear of deportation.
But following Tuesday's announcement, the Trump administration will not accept any new applications for the DACA program, nor will it renew permits for people who have them once they expire. Trump appropriately delegated the announcement to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was confirmed in the role despite having once been rejected as a federal judge by the Senate because of his alleged racism. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump during the campaign, in large measure because of Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric, so it's not surprising that he was a strong voice within the administration for ending DACA.
In his statement, Sessions attempted to frame ending DACA as simply respecting the authority of Congress. According to Sessions, DACA was "an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws" that constituted "an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch." By delaying implementation for six months, the Trump administration is theoretically allowing Congress to fix the problem legislatively.
So what's the problem?
First of all, the claim that DACA was unconstitutional is false. While the Obama administration preferred a legislative immigration solution, it is unequivocally the legal responsibility of the executive branch to set enforcement priorities.
It is also highly misleading to say that DACA contravened the policy established by Congress. The legislature has appropriated enough funds to deport only a small fraction of authorized immigrants; the executive branch using its discretion to determine which deportations were the highest priority is a known and inevitable consequence of the policy choices made by Congress. It was plainly constitutional for the Obama administration to determine that scarce resources would not be expended deporting law-abiding people who often have known no other home besides the U.S. — and it was also humane for those priorities to be made explicit.
In addition to his erroneous legal arguments, Sessions misrepresented DACA's consequences. His assertion that DACA had "contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors" trying to immigrate illegally is false. There is no evidence that any such surge is happening at all, not to mention the fact that people who came to the U.S. after DACA was implemented are ineligible for its protections.
Still, one of DACA's great weaknesses is that it was much easier to reverse than a statute passed by Congress would have been. The best-case scenario would be if the Trump administration's decision to phase out DACA provides an incentive for Congress to finally pass legislation that would protect the DREAMers from deportation. Republican members of Congress who were reluctant to provide Obama with any legislative wins might be more amenable to compromise with Trump in the White House. It's possible that this won't work out so badly.
But don't bet on it. The internal divisions that have prevented congressional Republicans from agreeing on an anti-immigration bill haven't suddenly disappeared. Trump winning the Republican nomination didn't come entirely out of the blue, either; it's worth remembering that Mitt Romney rode to the Republican nomination in 2012 in part by running aggressively to the right on immigration. There will be substantial opposition to a legislative version of DACA within the Republican conference, and the Republican leadership will be reluctant to rely on Democratic votes to pass a bill on a hot-button issue. Republicans have found the transition from obstruction to governing difficult, and this is unlikely to be an exception.
Plus, there's an additional problem: With this Congress, the cure could well be worse than the disease. The anti-immigration faction with the Republican Party won't allow legislation to be passed without extracting a lot of concessions. A bill that authorized some version of DACA but, say, substantially increased funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement could be worse than doing nothing. And whatever Congress does, Trump will still be president and Sessions will still be the attorney general. A law that provides more resources to this executive branch would still be bad news for many unauthorized immigrants.
The ending of DACA is both inhumane and terrible for the American economy. Now, the question is whether Congress will do nothing about it — or make things even worse.