Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in six months. DACA protects roughly 800,000 young people who were brought into the United States illegally as children by their parents and who have grown to adulthood here. This protection allows them to legally work, go to school, or serve in our military without fear of deportation.
The decision to rescind DACA is a grave misstep that will have sweeping consequences, not just for those offered protection under the program but for our society as a whole. Congress now must move quickly to fix it.
The political context of DACA is important here. The program was implemented by President Barack Obama in 2012 to precisely articulate our immigration enforcement priorities. The Obama administration was responsible for record numbers of deportations, but focused on those with felony convictions, gang affiliations, or ties to espionage or terrorism. This was a shift from the wide enforcement net cast by the Bush administration, most notably with its controversial, high-profile workplace raids.
DACA was modeled on the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act (which is why those protected by DACA are often called “dreamers”). Attempts to pass this legislation have been bogged down in Washington gridlock since 2001, despite enjoying a majority of public support in both parties. The basic thrust of the DREAM Act has remained the same: to offer legal protections from deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. It would have opened pathways to legal employment, higher education, military service and potentially qualification for a path to permanent residency and citizenship.
Those protected by DACA have lived in the U.S. for decades. They settled into communities and went to school. The negative effects of being an unauthorized immigrant likely didn’t become tangible until their mid- to late teens: the inability to work legally or get a driver’s license, and significant barriers to pursuing higher education or joining the military. Moving toward adulthood also would bring the precarious sense that they could very easily be deported, returned to a country they may not even remember. DACA provided a temporary solution to these obstacles.
If Congress does not pass legislation, the administration’s DACA reversal will set in motion a wave of negative repercussions. Those previously protected by DACA will lose their ability to legally work in the U.S., seek higher education, or serve in our military. A recent report by the Cato Institute estimates that this could result in $280 billion in lost economic growth over the next decade, a punishing blow that would harm almost every sector of the U.S. economy.
Efforts to deport recipients of DACA protection would cost the U.S. government roughly $10 billion, according to the Brookings Institution. For perspective, this is nearly double the annual budget of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Even if those protected by DACA are not enforcement priorities, as Trump has said, his administration has ended the executive program designed to make those very priorities clear to ICE and Border Patrol.
The human toll is what is truly troubling here. The decision has brought chaos and uncertainty for hundreds of thousands of hard-working young people who have come to call the U.S. home, and whose undocumented status is not a reflection of their own choices or actions.
Trump’s decision came with a six month window for Congress to “legalize DACA” and a promise to “revisit” the decision if they don’t. What this means is profoundly unclear. Perhaps this is simply a political move trying to force passage of something like the DREAM Act. But the inability of the Congress to address this issue over the past 16 years does not bode well for a legislative fix. If this was the Trump administration’s intention, it is highly reckless — a bit like setting your house on fire to test the batteries in the smoke alarm.
There are already multiple proposed pieces of legislation that would offer legal protection for those previously protected under DACA. It is incumbent upon Congress to work together to swiftly legislate a solution and upon all of us as citizens to demand one.
Robert W. Glover is an associate professor of political science and honors at the University of Maine in Orono. He is the co-leader of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.