President Donald Trump signed executive orders this week that might deliver two of his biggest campaign promises: to build a border wall and to make it considerably tougher to be an undocumented resident of the United States.
But a third campaign promise – to repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and start the deportation process of about 750,000 people who grew up in the United States after being brought here as children – remains unfilled.
For thousands of people in Southern California, that inaction by Trump is a moment of personal anxiety, a potentially life-changing shoe that has yet to drop.
For Trump, it’s a moment of political anxiety.
Before the presidential election, DACA was as big a part of Trump’s campaign rhetoric as the border wall. In speech after speech, he railed against the program, saying he would “terminate” it immediately, even in the face of political blowback. Polling shows his core supporters responded to that message, seeing the promise as a sign that Trump was immune to typical political pressures.
But since the election, Trump’s language on DACA has softened.
In his first TV interview as president-elect, he suggested he would replace DACA with something that would allow younger immigrants to stay in the United States. And on Wednesday, the same day he signed the executive orders to start construction of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and to beef up border agents and immigration personnel, Trump told ABC News that DACA recipients “shouldn’t be worried.”
Still, many are.
“There is just chaos and hysteria going on with our undocumented community,” said Luz Gallegos, community programs director for the TODEC Legal Center, which provides immigration services in the Inland Empire.
Like many immigrant advocacy groups in the region, the center continues to help immigrants already in the program to renew their status with DACA, which offers relief from deportation in two-year windows. But Gallegos said her group also is advising people not to submit initial applications for the program, keeping their personal information – and the fact they’re not documented immigrants – out of government databases.
“It’s been really emotional. We don’t know what’s going to happen two days from now, two hours from now. It’s a roller coaster” Gallegos said, choking up. “There’s really no end to it with this administration.”
What is known is that DACA is popular.
As of now, DACA, created nearly five years ago as an executive order by President Barack Obama, covers more than 200,000 people in California. Most work or study here; virtually all speak English and are culturally assimilated.
Often, DACA recipients – called Dreamers by supporters and the media – are the public faces of the immigration debate.
A poll released in late November by Global Strategy Group found that 58 percent of voters supported keeping DACA in place, and just 28 percent wanted it to be repealed.
For Trump – supposedly immune to polling – a decision to cut the program could reduce his political capital.
“The politics of it get very dicey,“ said Mike Madrid, a California-based Republican strategist who has studied Latino voting trends. For most voters, he said, “going after Dreamers would be one step too far.”
“This is absolutely a lightning rod. DACA has personalized the (immigration) issue in a way that nothing else has. It puts a human face to it, and in a social movement, that can change everything.”
Given the political delicacy of the issue, Madrid said, it’s possible that Trump could choose to quietly phase out the program, rather than make a big repeal announcement.
“I think that might be as far as they’re willing to go, politically,” Madrid said.
But Trump is already facing pressure from anti-illegal immigration groups, who fear the president’s hesitancy to repeal DACA signals a broader softening on his hawkish immigration policy agenda.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Joe Guzzardi, national media director at Californians for Population Stabilization, a Santa Barbara-based group that advocates immigration restrictions.
“He said early and often that he was going to repeal Obama’s executive orders on immigration, and DACA was on that list.”
In an email blast sent this week, the North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration PAC urged its 50,000 supporters to tell the White House to reopen its comments hotline so that they could push the president to act on DACA.
“He risks alienating the very powerful base that elected him if he doesn’t act soon,” said William Gheen, the group’s president. “We’ve given Republicans all of the branches of government, and we don’t want to see them support DACA by any means.”
Trump didn’t look at polling when he moved to build the wall. Only about 37 percent of Americans want a border wall; 59 percent oppose it. And, broadly speaking, most Americans – 61 percent – favor a path to citizenship for immigrants.
Other Republicans are moving away from Trump on DACA.
This month, a bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, introduced legislation to give deportation relief to as many as 740,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
“It’s my firm belief most Americans want to fix a broken immigration system in a humane manner,” Graham said in a news release.
In a statement on Trump’s executive orders Wednesday, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein took the president to task for not addressing DACA, calling it “the most important issue at hand.”
“It’s a successful program that I think the president should leave alone,” Feinstein said. “Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said DACA youth wouldn’t be a priority and I hope he follows through on that.”
Some of the blowback will undoubtedly come from the Dreamers themselves.
Since the inception of the program in 2012, DACA recipients have become a well-resourced and vocal political interest group, mobilizing undocumented immigrants and presenting a sympathetic face to the immigrant rights movement.
“I think the real political strength of Dreamers is that they are telling people who they are,” said U.S. Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, who has been outspoken on immigrant rights issues.
“And when you get to hear their stories, how do you say no to them?”
Still, Trump might.
This week, a draft of an executive order was leaked on the website Vox. That draft called for the elimination of DACA.
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