Kelly’s directives do not overturn the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which has granted renewable, two-year work permits to more than 750,000 immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. But lawyers said that the broad expansion of the Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement powers has heightened the risk for immigrants who have registered with the agency.
Under the program, applicants are required to present proof of their identity, such as a passport or birth certificate, and show documentation of where they go to school or work.
“The main risk is bringing attention to yourself,” said Gregory Chen, advocacy director for the 14,000-member American Immigration Lawyers Association, which is advising people not to enroll. “Our reading of the DHS memos, and we’ve looked carefully at the language that creates an exception for and retains DACA, is that they really are cold comfort to anyone concerned about the viability of their immigration status.”
The uncertainty threatens to place Obama’s signature immigration program in an indefinite state of limbo and lower participation levels even if President Trump does not formally end it. Trump had derided DACA as an “unconstitutional executive amnesty” in a speech in August, but he has equivocated since taking office.
At a news conference this month, Trump called the program “one of the most difficult subjects I have” and pledged to “show great heart” toward those enrolled in DACA, commonly known as “dreamers.”
DHS officials said concerns that DACA recipients would be targeted for deportation were unfounded, and they emphasized that the agency continues to process applications as it had under the Obama administration.
“We don’t want there to be fear or panic,” said Gillian Christensen, an agency spokeswoman. “We’ve made it pretty clear that DACA recipients are not affected” by the DHS directives.
But advocates said they have little faith in those promises, pointing out that Kelly’s memos state that DHS “no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.” On the day the memos were released, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that “everybody who is here illegally is subject to removal at any time.”
The DHS guidelines established priorities that focus enforcement actions on those who present public-safety risks, Spicer said. But he added that if “you’re in this country in an illegal manner, obviously there’s a provision that could ensure that you be removed.”
David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Cleveland, said the Trump administration is “attempting to create a false narrative that they are going after criminals and that they’re protecting dreamers, when in fact they have set priorities for deportation that throw out the Obama administration’s [narrow] enforcement priorities and, if you read it closely, really encompass everyone.”
The mixed signals from the Trump administration have convinced advocates that DACA’s future remains doubtful and that its protections are flimsy. A White House draft executive order, leaked to news organizations last month, showed that Trump was considering a plan to halt new DACA applications, while allowing those already enrolled to continue until their two-year work permits expired. Trump has not signed that order.
But alarm grew this month after federal agents in Seattle arrested a 23-year-old DACA recipient who was born in Mexico. Authorities have alleged that Daniel Ramirez Medina has gang ties and he remains in federal custody. His attorneys deny any gang affiliation and are suing for his release.
The arrest came after Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of DHS, apprehended 683 undocumented immigrants in six cities earlier this month.
DHS officials said that DACA requirements stipulate that recipients who commit crimes or have ties to gangs can be stripped of their protections. Since 2012, about 1,500 people have been removed from DACA over such infractions, said Christensen, the spokeswoman.
“People have a lot of anxiety and fear,” said Cristina Jiménez, executive director of United We Dream, the largest advocacy group for dreamers.
Jiménez said her organization, which has received more than 400 calls and thousands of emails since the ICE raids, is advising undocumented immigrants not to sign up for DACA and cautioning those already in the program not to travel outside the country even though the rules allow them to do so.
“We don’t feel that we have certainty about the program,” said Jiménez, whose brother is a DACA recipient. “The Trump administration has emboldened agencies to do what he promised during the campaign, which is mass deportation. People are terrified.”
Obama’s creation of DACA in 2012 was viewed as a major victory for the dreamers, a group estimated at almost 2 million, who have lived most of their lives in the United States and emerged as a powerful political force over the past decade.
But Obama’s attempt in 2014 to create a similar deferred-action program for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens was blocked in federal court after Texas and 25 other states, mostly with Republican governors, sued, calling it an unconstitutional abuse of his authority. The Supreme Court deadlocked 4 to 4, and the lower court ruling remains in place.
That ruling did not affect DACA, however, and Trump’s caution in overturning it demonstrates the sensitive politics regarding the dreamers. Public polls have showed that a majority of the public supports the program.
“A lot of people on the House side are telling the White House it would be a disaster politically” if Trump ends DACA, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of smal-business owners. Jacoby added that the widespread protests over Trump’s travel ban on refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries would “look like child’s play” compared with the backlash if the deferred-action program is eliminated.
Some lawmakers are pushing for a legislative solution to protect the dreamers.
Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) have proposed the Bridge Act, which would allow dreamers to remain in the country for three years until a more permanent solution is worked out. That legislation would prevent the sharing of personal information with ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In the meantime, however, immigrants’ advocates said they have little faith in Trump’s pronouncement during his news conference that “I love these kids.”
Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, faulted the White House for failing to clearly specify in the DHS memos that dreamers are a low priority for deportation.
“It’s abusive,” said Hincapié, whose organization is also advising immigrants not to enroll. “If you really do love young immigrants, why not make it clear and provide stability and reassurance?”