The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A federal judge just gave ‘dreamers’ a break. But it’s still more likely than not that their protections end.

With the Supreme Court deciding to leave the controversy over Trump's DACA deadline for lower courts to decide, the fate of dreamers stays in limbo. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

This post has been updated with the latest news.

The original deadline President Trump set for Congress to protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants has come and gone, and Washington is nowhere close to a deal. But recent court cases may have extended the program for months.

So, where does all this leave the estimated 700,000 “dreamers” who were supposed to face deportation on March 5?

It's unclear. There are a few possibilities, and not all of them are good for dreamers. Here are the likeliest scenarios for dreamers over the next few months, ranked in order of least likely to most:

5. Trump sets a new deadline.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly says he doesn’t expect President Trump to extend DACA’s deadline if Congress fails to reach an immigration deal. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The president set a March 5 deadline in September after he announced that he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was an Obama-era program that protects dreamers from deportation. The deadline quickly became more of a political one than a legal one after two federal courts in California and New York effectively made it moot. (More on that below.)

The White House said that it wouldn't be extended anyway. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told reporters that he doesn't think the president will push out the deadline for a two reasons:

  1. He's not sure the president can, legally;
  2. Congress works best under a deadline, real or not. “What makes them act is pressure,” Kelly said.

4. Congress strikes a deal to protect dreamers from deportation.

The Washington Post’s David Nakamura explains what the collapse of several immigration bills means for young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers.” (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Any momentum Congress had to protect dreamers hit a wall in February after four separate immigration proposals tied to protecting dreamers failed to advance in the Senate.

Even though protecting dreamers is something a majority of Washington wants, it's really hard to find consensus in the details. Take the bills the Senate debated and these thorny questions each tried to answer:

  • How many dreamers should be legalized?
  • Democrats have largely acquiesced to funding some of Trump's border wall in exchange for protecting dreamers. But how much? And will the funding be used over the next decade, or immediately? Can that money be used to actually build a wall, or could it be a fence and other construction projects?
  • Democrats and some mainstream Republicans also don't like the idea of curbing legal immigration, like the diversity visa lottery program and ending most family-sponsored visas. But will Trump sign a bill that doesn't have that?

On any one of those questions, Congress can't find an answer that will win a majority in the more moderate Senate, let alone among the more conservative House Republicans. In addition, court cases extending the program have sucked out what little urgency was there for Congress to act.

In short, a legislative fix looks like it will not happen anytime soon. Not in this Congress, anyway.

The spending bill was probably the last major piece of legislation Congress will pass all year.

3. Dreamers are deported en masse.

President Trump said on Jan. 30, that his immigration proposal will close loopholes that have allowed MS-13 gang members to enter the United States. (Video: The Washington Post)

After DACA ended without legislation to recreate it, the ball moved to the White House's side of the court. Trump can decide to deport the dreamers or extend the deadline.

So far, it doesn't look like he's moving the deadline. Which leaves ... well, Trump has hinted that dreamers shouldn't expect any more protections after Congress failed to find a deal.

“This will be our last chance,” Trump tweeted as the Senate was voting on a deal.

Deporting dreamers en masse would be practically unreasonable and politically risky. Brought to the country as children, fluent in English and arguably as culturally American as citizens, dreamers are a group that invite sympathy. A January Quinnipiac University poll found that even 49 percent of Republicans support legalizing dreamers, along with 81 percent of all Americans.

And a February Quinnipiac poll found that a majority of Americans would blame Republicans if dreamers got deported.

All that to say it would be politically difficult and practically impossible to deport dreamers en masse.

2. Dreamers' future remains in legal limbo in the courts.

After a closed door meeting, the Supreme Court turned down the Trump administration's appeal of a lower court's decision on DACA. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Thanks to two court cases in California and New York — and a refusal this week from the U.S. Supreme Court to enter the fray — the Trump administration has to continue to accept renewals to DACA. On Tuesday, a D.C. federal judge ruled that the Trump administration also has to accept new applicants to the program because they didn't explain why they were ending the program.

The court battles are far from over. Legal experts say this will almost certainly end up before the Supreme Court as a question of the president's power.

But even if the Supreme Court were to rule that DACA is constitutional and the government can't ever cancel it, the courts are just a temporary solution for a decades-long problem, said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute.

“You're still going to have millions of dreamers who are not going to be eligible for the program but who will be living here,” he said. “It's not a permanent solution.”

1. Dreamers just kind of fade into the shadows.

This is the likeliest option because it's the one that's already happening.  Absent a permanent deal in Congress to protect them, and absent a deadline, this slow-and-steady fade of dreamers back into the shadows will probably keep happening. And since the slow fade is not as dramatic as dreamers all losing their protections at once, there may not be as much public pressure for Congress to act to protect them.

“It will continue to be the slow burn that it already is, where dreamers who come into contact with law enforcement will be deported,” Nowrasteh said. “They just fade back into the shadows.”