BY ALFONSO AGUILAR
After months of speculation, Attorney General Jeff Sessions finally announced that the Trump administration would terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Obama created through executive action. The program shielded from deportation 800,000 undocumented immigrants — the so-called Dreamers — who entered the country illegally as minors through no fault of their own.
It’s true that most in the Hispanic community anticipated the president’s decision. Candidate Trump had denounced the program as “executive amnesty.” Yet, many harbored a glimmer of hope. President Trump had not followed through on his campaign promise to end DACA on the first day of his administration. Moreover, since the election, he had stated that he would “deal with DACA with heart” and that its beneficiaries “shouldn’t be very worried.”
So when the announcement came, there was surprise and great disappointment. “Taking DACA away is taking us back to a really dark time for immigrants,” a 23-year-old Maryland resident who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was seven years old told The Washington Post. Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles called the announcement “a national tragedy and a moral challenge to every conscience.” I must admit that I also expressed my outrage on live television. Speaking on CNN immediately after the announcement, I denounced it as “insulting and sad,” adding that “if the goal of the president of the United States [was] to deal with ‘heart’ with DACA recipients, then the president failed miserably.”
Having Attorney General Sessions, an anti-immigration hardliner, deliver the message certainly didn’t help — it added insult to injury. As expected, he couched the announcement in his usual restrictionist rhetoric, stressing the unlawful way in which DACA recipients entered the country and falsely arguing that they had taken jobs away from Americans. Studies consistently show that Dreamers greatly contribute to the economy and help create jobs for Americans. Sessions said it was now up to Congress to address the issue, but he didn’t provide any administration guidance on what should be done, much less any commitment that the president would be involved in the process of finding a legislative solution.
It did seem at the moment that the nativist forces within the administration had won this round and that Sessions and Stephen Miller, his pupil and former aide and now policy advisor to the president, had swayed Trump not to weaken his stance against DACA or show any willingness to help the Dreamers.
In just a few hours after the decision was made public, however, everything changed dramatically. With one tweet early in the evening, President Trump upended the day’s announcement. The president now urged Congress to “legalize DACA,” the program that only few hours ago his own attorney general had derided for supposedly hurting American workers, saying that if “they can’t, I will revisit the issue.” Not only was the president expressing clearly that he wanted Congress to pass legislation to provide relief to Dreamers, but he seemed to indicate he would be willing to postpone the termination of DACA if they didn’t.
It seems obvious that the president wasn’t happy with the negative reaction he saw all day to Session’s heartless announcement and decided to follow his initial instincts to deal with the issue in a reasonable and compassionate way. And his abrupt change of mind didn’t seem to be an extemporaneous response to bad media coverage. After talking to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and apparently at her behest, Trump took to Twitter once again to reassure concerned DACA recipients that they would not be deported during the six-month phaseout of the program; that “you have nothing to worry about. No action!”
All of a sudden we find ourselves closer to finding a real and permanent solution for the Dreamers. We, in fact, have never been closer. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said that the president “made the right call” and that Dreamers should “rest easy” because Congress will take action to let them remain in the country. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois acknowledged the quickly changed and more hopeful political environment, saying that he has come to see the decision to end DACA “not so much as an epitaph, [but] as an opportunity, because we heard the White House quickly: ‘We want to do something.’ We want to respond with a law that we can back.”
Needless to say, we still have to wait and see if a polarized Washington can actually come together and pass a bill that provides permanent legal status to the Dreamers, but if it does happen, and I think it will, the irony will be evident. The president, who has been much maligned by many as anti-Hispanic and racist, and not his predecessor who smugly portrayed himself as the advocate of immigrants, may be the one who ends up forging the necessary bipartisan consensus to ensure that Congress begins passing legislation to bring good and hardworking undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.
Aguilar is president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the administration of President George W. Bush.