Advocacy groups on both sides of the national debate over immigration are bracing for battle over an Obama administration program that has allowed 700,000 people who crossed the border without permission to live and work in the United States legally.
The fate of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which shelters 39,000 immigrants in the Washington area — remained uncertain Wednesday as President Trump began his promised crackdown on illegal immigration by signing directives to begin actions including building a wall along the border with Mexico.
With more executive actions on immigration expected this week, groups seeking tougher enforcement have launched a social-media campaign to lobby for the end of the DACA program, which grants three-year stays of deportation to people who arrived illegally in the United States as children before 2007.
Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, said they’re ready to rally a broad base of supporters of the deferred-action program and to protect the confidentiality of DACA beneficiaries who are worried that they’ll be targeted for deportation.
“I think the backlash to eliminating DACA will be far beyond just the immigrant community,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Washington-based National Immigration Forum.
The program, he said, “reminded millions of Americans that their kid’s best friend is an undocumented immigrant, and that the family in the pew one row over is undocumented. You can’t unremember that by eliminating DACA.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to end DACA, which was launched under an executive order signed by then-President Obama. But Trump has shown signs of softening his stance since winning office.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president would deal with the DACA beneficiaries “in a very humane way.”
The uncertainty surrounding the program has fueled passions on both sides.
Numbers USA, a group advocating the reduction of all forms of immigration, launched a Twitter campaign this week lobbying Trump to “rescind unconstitutional DACA executive action.”
Roy Beck, the group’s executive director, criticized Trump as “putting out a lot of mixed signals” about the program. “They just keep going back and forth on it,” Beck said. “There are very few promises that were as explicit as his promise on DACA. He said he’d end it. I can’t imagine he would risk undermining his popularity with his base that much.”
Such pressure has DACA beneficiaries worried that they’ll be targeted in some way by the Trump administration, even if the president does not sign an executive order to end the program.
“My phone has been buzzing with emails and tweets from people across the country expressing one thing, and that is fear,” said Juan Escalante, who manages digital campaigns for America’s Voice, a group advocating for comprehensive immigration reforms.
DACA beneficiary Jovany Villa Gutierrez, 18, said he is feeling deep uncertainty about his future — including whether he will be able to keep his $11.50-an-hour job as a prep cook at a local private high school. The Northern Virginia resident, who was an infant when his family came to the United States from Mexico, said he dreads the possibility of again having to conceal his undocumented status.
“If I didn’t have DACA, I don’t think I’d have many of the things I have now: a job, my own car, being able to work without being hidden,” Gutierrez said. “The people who have it have already advanced so much. Just taking it away would completely rip apart everything for them.”
Escalante, who is also a DACA beneficiary, said many people are anxious because they gave the federal government their addresses and other personal information when registering with the program.
“My understanding was that this information was being turned over explicitly to meet the requirements of the program,” said Escalante, who is from Venezuela. “At no point did I expect it to be considered in any way to retaliate against me or my brothers or the hundreds of thousands of people who applied for it.”
Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, said any targeting of DACA beneficiaries would prompt a legal battle against the Trump administration.
“They relied on the assurance that the information would not be used against them,” she said. “We would be ready to challenge any effort by the new administration if they tried to use that information against the young immigrants enrolled in DACA.”
Some Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been pushing for legislation that would bar the government from deporting DACA beneficiaries if the program is rescinded.
The Bridge Act — championed in the Senate by Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lyndsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), and in the House by Reps. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) — would offer DACA beneficiaries three years of work authorization and protected status under the assumption that Congress would enact comprehensive immigration reform that would clarify the beneficiaries’ options before that period expires.
Given that several versions of immigration-reform legislation have died in Congress over the past decade, some groups opposed to DACA call the idea misguided.
“It would be just formalizing the Obama’s amnesty for those individuals without anything else in return,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for curbing all forms of immigration.
Krikorian said he supports the idea of granting continued protection to DACA beneficiaries — if that benefit could be politically bartered for tougher enforcement measures, such as mandatory background checks at the workplace and limiting legal immigration to relatives of U.S. citizens.
“My concern is that the Republican leadership is going to give away DACA for too little,” Krikorian said. “There is going to be kind of a game of chicken going on here: Are the Democrats willing to let DACA lapse for something else? Or are the Republicans willing to let it continue? Who is going to blink first?”