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This is the Trump administration’s most stunningly cynical excuse for ending DACA

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the Trump administration's choice to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at a news briefing on Sept. 5. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Reuters)

Hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would be ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced the White House press corps to explain the decision.

One of her answers in particular can be described with no other word than “cynical.”

DACA, as the policy is generally known, was created through a 2012 executive action by President Barack Obama. It protects from deportation those who’d immigrated to the United States as children and offered them the opportunity to go to school, serve in the military or work legally. It is, however, anathema to President Trump’s base of support, both because of the way it was implemented and because it was perceived to tacitly approve of illegal immigration. The administration decision announced Tuesday in essence used the former criticism as an excuse to curtail the latter.

Repeatedly and as recently as last week, Trump asserted that he was concerned about those who were living under the protection of DACA, a group commonly referred to as “dreamers” — a reference to the 2010 Dream Act, legislation that would have provided that protection. (It was blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate.)

“We love the dreamers,” Trump said Friday. In February, he stated that he would treat the group with “heart.”

At Tuesday’s White House briefing, NBC’s Kristen Welker made reference to Trump’s past comments about how he’d approach the issue. “Dreamers, supporters of dreamers, say this is coldhearted,” Welker said. “You’re leaving the future of 800,000 people uncertain. Up in the air. What’s your message to them?”

It was this, according to Sanders:

It’s not coldhearted for the president to uphold the law. We are a nation of law and order. And the day that we start to ignore that we are that, then we throw away everything that gives these people a reason to want to come to our country. If we stop becoming the country that we were envisioned to be, then we throw away what makes us special, what makes America unique.
“This president’s not willing to do that. The previous administration was. This one isn’t.”

It is certainly true that the United States is a nation of laws, and that this, among other things, is one of the reasons that the country has been appealing to immigrants. It is further true that there was significant question about whether Obama had the necessary authority to implement DACA without congressional approval in the first place.

It is also true that an administration that offered a blanket pardon to former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio has little standing to claim the mantle of being a group that puts law and order above politics.

Remember, Arpaio was not convicted of, say, drunken driving. He was convicted of contempt of court — for ignoring a legal edict issued by a federal judge.

What’s more, he was convicted of ignoring an edict that was meant to constrain his own behavior as an officer of the law. Of all of the various ways in which Arpaio pressured immigrants in his jurisdiction over his tenure in office — both those who arrived illegally and those who hadn’t — it was his efforts to turn up undocumented individuals by indiscriminately targeting Latino communities and drivers that prompted a federal court to order a stop to his behavior. A judge determined that Arpaio willfully ignored that order to stop profiling Hispanics, even though he demonstrably understood what had been mandated.

In other words, Arpaio took an oath to uphold and defend the law but ignored that mandate to target immigrants. When a court ordered that he stop doing so, he then ignored the court. Two layers of ignoring law and order. And Trump pardoned him.

In his statement about the pardon last month, Trump defended Arpaio personally.

“Throughout his time as Sheriff, Arpaio continued his life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration,” the statement concluded. “Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now eighty-five years old, and after more than fifty years of admirable service to our Nation, he is worthy candidate for a Presidential pardon.”

Outside of the context of DACA, that’s a remarkably generous interpretation of Arpaio’s time in office. (He was thrown out by voters in the same election that handed Trump the White House.) In the context of DACA and Sanders’s remarks, it’s jarring. DACA recipients, after all, have certain standards that they must meet to received the protections of the program. Among them? They cannot have criminal records. In other words, before his pardon Arpaio wouldn’t have met the moral requirements to have an application for DACA approved.

Not that the pardon was surprising. Trump’s politics on immigration mirror Arpaio’s. The pardon made clear that Trump’s interpretation of the mandates of the law to some extent also mirrored Arpaio’s: If the intent is something with which you agree, why let a few words in a law book get in your way?

What’s surprising is that the White House cites its strict respect for law and order as a rationale for ending a program that necessitates a higher standard of behavior from applicants than the president believes should apply to his political allies.