When I was in elementary school, my family moved from our home in Tennessee to Kentucky. My dad got a new job that paid more and opened up better opportunities for our family. Now, I am proud to call myself a Kentuckian. However, I wasn’t a part of the decision making process to make this move. It wasn’t my call to move to Kentucky—I was only a kid.
Imagine how different this situation would have been if my family had been crossing the border between countries, rather than between states - the ramifications change significantly. Imagine growing up under the constant threat of deportation, knowing that your future employment and educational opportunities would be severely limited, without the ability to obtain a driver’s license in many places. Imagine having to accept the consequences of a choice that you never had a say in making.
Of course, in many ways these two situations could not be more different from one another. While in both situations the child is not responsible for the decision to move, the bearing of the future consequences that the move creates differ significantly between immigrant and nonimmigrant families. It is a complicated, difficult situation, but one that is familiar to thousands currently living in the U.S.
For the last 16 years, Congress has been debating what to do about this particular group of immigrants who came to the United States as undocumented minors. Since the first DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) was introduced in 2001, members of both parties have tried to navigate the choppy political and cultural waters of immigration policy to pass some sort of protections for these immigrants, who have become known as “Dreamers.”
Various bills related to this issue failed to pass for over a decade, eventually culminating in the failure to pass a version of the DREAM Act in 2010 by just a few votes in the Senate. After this failure, the Obama administration attempted to find a temporary solution through executive action, announcing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012. The program sought to protect undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. as children and met certain criteria regarding education and criminal records from deportation.
Since 2012, approximately 790,000 undocumented immigrants have been approved for the program, allowing them to enroll in college, obtain a valid driver’s license, be legally employed, and be relieved of the threat of deportation. The program does not provide a pathway to citizenship or full legal status, and must be renewed every two years. Recipients must also pay income taxes and a $465 fee to apply for renewal.
The program has been controversial, with many claiming it is an overreach of executive powers. Among the critics of the program is President Trump. Ending DACA was one of his first promises on the campaign trail. In his speech announcing his candidacy, he stated that he would “immediately terminate President Obama's illegal executive order on immigration..” upon his election. Although he repeated this promise throughout his campaign as part of his anti-immigration platform, DACA’s repeal took a backseat to more immediate and controversial actions.
However, DACA was back in the headlines this Fall as President Trump weighed whether or not to end the program, prompted by the threat of a lawsuit by a group of state attorney generals. Despite the immediate dismantling of DACA being one of Trump’s original campaign promises, the president wavered on whether or not to follow through with this promise.He was reportedly conflicted about the decision, citing potential direct harm to DACA recipients and their families, as well as indirect harm to the US economy. This wavering reflects a constant tension for the Trump presidency between satisfying a far-right support base and dealing with the political realities of governing, in this case ending a relatively popular and successful program.
On September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of the program’s fiercest opponents, announced that the Trump administration would end DACA. New applications will no longer be accepted, and current recipients whose protection ends before March 5, 2018 had until October 5 to renew their protection, creating a six month window before DACA recipients will begin to lose their protection. In the announcement, Sessions said that this window is in place to give Congress the opportunity to pass legislation that would create a permanent solution for Dreamers.
Why Congress Has a Responsibility to Act
In 2014, two years after the enactment of DACA, Center for Public Justice CEO Stephanie Summers made the case that the enactment of DACA upheld public justice. Summers argued that “Congress violates the standards of public justice when it promotes policies that ultimately interfere with families’ abilities to uphold their responsibilities by subsuming the right authority of the family to the false sovereignty claim of the state.” The executive branch had a responsibility to intervene, and found a way to do so in DACA.
Those eligible for DACA’s protections did not come to the U.S. by choice, and it isn’t fair to hold them responsible for the decisions of others.They have established their lives in the U.S. and are contributing members of American society. The rule of law is important—justice depends on it. However, to deny these protections to those who meet the qualifications of DACA is to violate justice. True justice has the ends of human flourishing, rather than misdirecting its ends towards laws that hold people to unfair standards and deny them the opportunity to live flourishing lives.
Opponents of DACA often argue that undocumented immigrants pose a threat to public safety, that providing a pathway to citizenship will cost U.S. taxpayers significantly, and that giving legal status to undocumented immigrants will overcrowd the U.S. job market. However, these arguments do not hold up to scrutiny.
Study after study has shown that immigrants commit crimes at a lesser rate than non-immigrants, suggesting perhaps that they contribute to more safe communities. The argument that those receiving DACA’s protections make the U.S. less safe is simply not factually supported.
The elimination of DACA’s protections would also be a loss to the U.S. tax system, rather than a benefit. As the Cato Institute explains,
“According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), first-generation immigrants who enter the United States as children (including all DACA recipients) pay, on average, more in taxes over their lifetimes than they receive in benefits, regardless of their education level. DACA recipients end up contributing more than the average, because they are not eligible for any federal means-tested welfare: cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, health-care tax credits or anything else.”
While the notion that DACA is too costly to U.S. taxpayers if often cited as a viable reason for repealing DACA, it also is not factually supported.
Lastly, protecting DACA recipients and encouraging their employment in the U.S. would not cause fewer available jobs for American workers. Rather, if anything, this would boost the economy as a whole. DACA recipients are more educated than the average immigrant and, depending on the education requirements in the legislation, would add a sizable, young, well-educated, highly capable pool of workers and entrepreneurs to an aging U.S. population.
The utilitarian argument for protecting Dreamers is strong, but a moral case is equally compelling. A debate about the value of immigrants’ lives and whether they deserve the opportunity to pursue safety and flourishing for their families should not depend on their education or projected economic benefit. Further, Christians should keep this commitment at the forefront of the conversation surrounding immigration policy.
As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Family states, “Government’s policies should aim to uphold the integrity and social viability of families.” Removing the protections and benefits of DACA violates this key responsibility of government. As a part of promoting a just society that respects the dignity of individuals and families, action needs to be taken to enshrine the protections of DACA into law.
How Congress Can Act
The most common argument against DACA is that it was an overstep of the executive branch of government, infringing upon the legislative branch’s authority to write and pass policy. However, Summers maintains that DACA is not an overstep of the executive branch, but rather that the Obama administration’s action to prioritize the enforcement of immigration law is an appropriate exercise of authority by the executive branch.
Even so, with the Trump administration’s repeal of DACA, the question of executive overreach is no longer relevant. The question now is, what should Congress do?
Congress should craft legislation that protects this group of immigrants from deportation and allows them to legally live, learn, and work in the United States. The structure of such a process could take many different forms, but will be necessary to effectively move our policy towards upholding the dignity of immigrants, respecting both the spirit and rule of law, protecting families, and showing mercy for individuals without control over their circumstances.
There are several legislative options being discussed, most of which include some kind of compromise where Republicans will agree to pass a more permanent version of DACA’s protections in exchange for additional resources towards border security. Concern over whether a bill will pass is a valid one, leaving DACA recipients unable to know when or whether they will be eligible for deportation after March.
For these immigrants, who have paid significant fees, enrolled in college, bought houses, and started careers and families, the waiting game can be cruel. As March approaches, the stakes for any legislation will only loom larger, adding pressure to an already high stakes situation. Congress should act quickly and decisively in order to make the transition between DACA and some type of permanent legislation as seamless as possible.
An Opportunity for Unity
In a heated political environment where immigration has become a flashpoint of division, working towards legislation to protect Dreamers is an opportunity for unity. The protection of Dreamers has received wide ranging support among both lawmakers and the public. Despite his previous opposition, President Trump himself made the case on Twitter saying, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really! They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own - brought in by parents at young age.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed a desire to pass legislation to protect DACA recipients, and now is the time to act. However, doing so will require that both parties compromise to some degree. Republicans, who have discussed attaching funding for President Trump’s desired wall for Mexico, will have to resist adding controversial border security measures to such a bill. Likewise, Democrats need to be willing to make concessions that Republicans, many of whom represent an increasingly anti-immigrant political base, can support. Passing such legislation will require a political finesse and collective effort that has become frighteningly rare on Capitol Hill.
The termination of the DACA program doesn’t conform to the standards of public justice. The responsibility to restore the proper authority of the family, to reassert the human dignity of immigrants, and to maintain the rule of law while extending opportunity to vulnerable people—ultimately, the responsibility to uphold public justice—rests with Congress.
-Andrew Whitworth is a graduate of Taylor University and alumnus of the Trinity Fellows Academy. He lives in DC working to build flourishing political communities. Photo courtesy of Molly Adams.