On Tuesday, President Donald Trump found a way to shut down the popular program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation while deflecting the full blast of the political heat for his move from immigrants’ rights groups, Latinos and their many allies in businesses and universities.
In a decision announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions — not by the president — Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to rescind a policy memorandum from 2012 that was the slim underpinning of the program, known as DACA, started by former President Barack Obama.
The program will continue to run until March 5, 2018, officials said, to allow Congress time to consider legislation to give permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children.
In his decision, Trump is looking to have it both ways, hoping to satisfy the demands of his supporters for hard-fisted action on immigration while shifting the burden to Congress to show the “heart” for young immigrants the president has said he harbors. His White House, known for its chaotic approach to policy shifts, may have more success this time in diffusing the political fallout for the president in Washington.
But challenges were already starting up in the courts and the streets to defend a program that allowed nearly 800,000 young immigrants to go to college, work legally, advance careers and deepen their bonds to American life.
Under the Trump administration’s plan, there will be no immediate mass deportations of young immigrants. None of the young people who currently have DACA permits will lose them or become vulnerable to deportation for at least six months. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said the delay recognizes “the complexities associated with winding down the program.”
Homeland Security officials will reject any new applications for DACA received after Tuesday. But they will continue to process applications for new permits that were already filed. They will also accept applications for renewals for permits that are expiring through March 5. (All renewal applications must be filed by Oct. 5.)
After March, existing DACA protections and the work permits that come with them will remain in effect until they expire at the end of their two-year terms of validity.
From now until December, DACA permits of 201,678 immigrants are set to expire, official figures show. In 2018, more than 275,000 permits are set to expire.
A document issued by the department on Tuesday to clarify the new instructions left no doubt about the impact on the immigrants when their permits expire. They are “unlawfully present,” it says, and at that point their deportations “will no longer be deferred.”
Homeland Security officials, addressing a concern raised by many frightened immigrants, said personal information provided to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers the program, “will not be proactively provided” to deportation agents.
But they also said the policy on information-sharing with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement could be changed at any time without notice.
The more immediately devastating impact on the young immigrants will be from the loss of their work permits. Employers would have to fire them as soon as those documents expire. That would likely set up a chain of damaging consequences, since many young immigrants, who call themselves Dreamers, have to work to pay for college tuition or provide crucial financial support for low-income families.
In announcing the cancellation, Sessions framed Trump’s decision as a constitutional imperative. In largely political comments that exactly echoed the rhetoric he used so often on Capitol Hill when he was a senator from Alabama, Sessions decried the program — which is officially called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — as “an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws” and an “unconstitutional exercise of authority” by Obama.
He said the Justice Department had determined that the program was doomed to fail eventually in the courts. Texas and eight other states had set a Sept. 5 deadline for the administration, threatening to sue if DACA was not cancelled.
By attenuating the impact of the cancellation on the immigrants, the White House partially succeeded in putting them and their supporters on the defensive, forcing them to focus their wrath and their activism on Congress during the six-month grace period to win legislation to fix their immigration status.
But many immigrants and their allies said they do not plan to stand down from legal action to attempt to prolong the DACA program, in case Congress fails to act. And by raising the argument to a full-bore constitutional dispute, the administration opened the way for litigation on the same high grounds.
Lawyers at the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrants’ rights legal advocacy organization, said they moved Tuesday to amend a lawsuit filed last year in federal court in Brooklyn to claim that Trump had failed to follow federal rules for making significant, abrupt policy changes. The suit also claims that the president’s move violates the Constitution because it is based on racial animus by Trump against Latinos, and particularly against Mexican immigrants. Trump has frequently attacked immigrants from Mexico as being criminals and sex offenders.
The lawsuit is drawing on arguments that legal groups made to challenge his travel ban earlier this year, saying it was a religious attack on Muslims.
New York, California and other states were considering legal action to preserve DACA, based on the cost of ending the program in lost tax revenues and in other investments they made in educating and supporting DACA holders.
Youth groups were weighing litigation to ensure that Homeland Security officials would not share any personal information with deportation agents.
And the street protests showed no sign of abating. On Tuesday immigrants were protesting in sit-ins and marches at the White House and in dozens of places around the country. They were hoping to turn the outpouring in recent support for their cause into some kind of guarantee, either from the administration or from Congress, that they can remain in the United States.