How Immigration Hardliners Are Forcing Trump's Hand on DACA

The president appears poised to end the Obama administration’s protections for young illegal immigrants.

Immigration activists rally in Washington to demand the Trump administration protect the DACA program earlier this month.
Immigration activists rally in Washington to demand the Trump administration protect the DACA program earlier this month. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

Five years ago, President Obama ordered that young illegal immigrants be protected from deportation, a program known as DACA. As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to rescind that protection. He could have done it on his first day in office—but he didn’t, and still hasn’t, for reasons no one quite understands.

Now, President Trump appears poised to revoke DACA. The action has not been officially announced, and administration sources believe that the impulsive president’s mind is not totally made up, but he is reportedly planning to do so as soon as Friday.

If he does, he will have effectively been boxed in by immigration restrictionists—potentially against his own better political judgment. “I do not think Trump wants to do this,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told me. “But they’ve cornered him. This artificial deadline has created the moment the opposition needed to force a decision.”

Immigration policy is the battleground for the White House’s warring factions, and DACA is ground zero. Around 750,000 undocumented youths now benefit from the program, which allows them to work and go to school without fear of deportation. Allowing the so-called “Dreamers” to stay is broadly popular even with Trump’s base: Nearly 80 percent of Republicans, and three-quarters of Trump voters, support it. But immigration hardliners like the pundit Ann Coulter, Breitbart, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been vocal proponents of ending the policy.

It is something of a mystery why Trump hasn’t ended it already. In campaign speeches, he vowed to “immediately terminate President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties,” meaning DACA and a subsequent action to protect Dreamers’ relatives that was blocked by the courts. Immigrant advocates braced for the White House to cancel the permits as early as Inauguration Day.

An executive order was reportedly drafted to do so—but Trump wouldn’t sign it. Instead, he waffled. He repeatedly expressed public sympathy for the Dreamers, even as he issued draconian immigration policies on other fronts: a ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries, for example, and an unrelenting crusade for a wall on the Southern border. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has continued to give two-year permits to Dreamers. About 200,000 have enrolled in the program or renewed their enrollment since Trump took office.

“We don’t want to hurt those kids,” Trump told Democrat Richard Durbin at an Inauguration Day lunch with congressional leaders. At a February news conference, he said, “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me,” and promised to handle it “with heart” for “these incredible kids.” In an April interview, he said Dreamers should “rest easy,” even though some of them have already been detained.

The president’s failure to pull the trigger infuriated and perplexed his friends in the immigration-restriction community, who felt he was breaking a promise. “DACA is inconsistent with the rule of law, inconsistent with the president’s own promises, and inconsistent with the president’s principled stand against illegal immigration,” the Kansas secretary of state and national immigration crusader Kris Kobach wrote in a Breitbart op-ed this week. “It must end.”

Why didn’t Trump do it? It’s not as if anyone could accuse him of having a soft spot for immigrants. He’s amply demonstrated that he’s not particularly concerned with offending Latino voters, or doing things that polls show are unpopular, or disrupting the status quo, or upsetting the business community or Republican establishment. So why not end DACA?

The best explanation, and the one proffered by sources in, around, and opposed to the White House, is the one the president himself has given: He feels for the Dreamers. As with other controversial administration policies, a moderate-establishment wing of the White House opposes the change, while a populist-conservative faction is pushing Trump to make it. Trump himself feels pulled in both directions.

More than one immigration advocate put it the same way to me: “Somebody told him these are good kids,” and it stuck. He didn’t want to anger the Breitbart wing of his base. But unlike other undocumented immigrants, hardworking young students didn’t strike him as criminals. And in an administration where personality is policy, Trump’s feelings carried the day.

The hardliners weren’t satisfied, and when they realized the White House wasn’t going to act, they sought to force Trump’s hand. A group of Republican attorneys general brought the 2014 lawsuit that prevented Obama from protecting Dreamers’ relatives. That suit is still pending; in June, a group led by the attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton, announced they would amend the lawsuit to also attack DACA if the administration hadn’t revoked the policy by September 5.

Immigration advocates suspect that Trump was trying to keep DACA in place without affirmatively supporting it—but the attorneys general called his bluff. “At least until right now, the president kept the status quo and kept DACA going, allowing roughly 200,000 renewals,” said Todd Schulte, president of the immigration-reform group “That was absolutely the right decision. Now, we have clearly seen people outside the administration try to jam him.”

The imposition of this arbitrary deadline has forced a decision. If Trump doesn’t act and the lawsuit goes forward, a conservative judge might try to halt the program, but the courts would probably allow DACA to continue while it’s being litigated. Experts differ on whether the program would ultimately pass legal muster—Obama himself repeatedly insisted he didn’t have the power to take such an action before reversing himself.

The immigration hardliners in the administration are working to convince the president that DACA will inevitably end, so he might as well “take the credit” for it. All week, anonymously sourced reports have portrayed revocation as a done deal. But the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that there would be no decision today, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the decision had “not been finalized.” While many are bracing for a late-Friday newsbreak, sources around and in contact with the White House believe the president still hasn’t made up his mind.

If Trump does announce he’s ending DACA, he would provoke an immediate firestorm. Even under the “phaseout” the administration has floated—allowing recipients’ permits to run out without issuing new ones or renewals—thousands of undocumented youths would begin to lose protected status on an ongoing basis.

“You are talking about 5,000 to 10,000 kids every week losing work authorization, becoming undocumented, and being subject to immigration enforcement and deportation,” said Tyler Moran, managing director of the D.C. Immigration Hub, a strategy center for pro-immigration groups. (The hub is funded by the Emerson Collective, which is in the process of acquiring a majority stake in The Atlantic.)

The Trump administration has eliminated the Obama administration’s prioritization system for deportations, meaning every unauthorized immigrant is a potential target. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has already reportedly sought to get its hands on the names and addresses of those registered for DACA. And meanwhile, thanks to Hurricane Harvey, a major city in Dreamer-heavy Texas is underwater. Houston is among the nation’s top five cities for DACA recipients.

Beyond the humanitarian effects, eliminating DACA would be a crisis for the business community and a public-relations nightmare for the administration and Congress. Trump has come under heavy pressure not to do it in recent days—in personal calls from senior Republican lawmakers and business heavy hitters, and in a full-court press from activists across the political spectrum, such as a Wednesday letter signed by numerous leading conservative evangelical Christians.

“Donald Trump is driving the Republican Party into the one place they tried to avoid—being blamed for the government hunting down and deporting kids,” a liberal immigration advocate told me. “He’s pointing a gun at his own head: ‘I’m going to shut down the government unless I get a border wall, and then I’m going to start deporting Dreamers!’”

But immigration restrictionists, of course, will rejoice if Trump revokes DACA. They will have effectively forced Trump to keep his promise to them—apparently against his own preferences. “He’s been on the record countless times [in favor of] DACA, and now he’s forfeited leadership on the issue,” a conservative immigration-reform advocate told me. “Shouldn’t he be [upset] about that?”

The ACLU, among many other observers, suspects that Trump’s own attorney general played a role in the conservative AGs’ scheme to box Trump in. The civil-rights group has filed a public-records request to see whether the Department of Justice coordinated with the state attorneys to create next week’s deadline.  In a June interview on Fox News, Sessions, who was the leading voice for cracking down on illegal immigration when he was in the Senate, said he welcomed the states’ lawsuit: “I like it that our states and localities are holding the federal government to account, expecting us to do what is our responsibility to the state and locals, and that is to enforce the law.” If the suit does go forward, many expect Sessions’s DOJ would not defend DACA, but other groups would intervene to do so.

Most Republican lawmakers desperately do not want to deal with this issue given their already-packed fall legislative calendar. But if there is a bright side to this crisis for DACA proponents, it is that Congress might finally bring itself to provide what the activists have always sought: a permanent, legislative solution for the Dreamers.

“Republicans are going to be on the hook for this. They control the House and Senate. It’s going to be their problem to solve,” said Moran, who worked on immigration in the Obama White House and on the staff of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. If you want to protect Dreamers, “There’s nothing else you can do except pass the bill.”