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Unease about DACA grows as Trump considers its fate

Hundreds of immigration advocates and supporters attended a rally and marched to Trump Tower in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, on Wednesdeay in New York City.
Hundreds of immigration advocates and supporters attended a rally and marched to Trump Tower in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, on Wednesdeay in New York City.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The pardon of Sheriff Joe. The ban on transgender service members. The rejection of the Paris climate accord.

For President Trump’s core base of supporters, the summer of 2017 has been a veritable garden of delights, with one glaring omission: The president has, so far at least, ignored an Obama-era program that provides work permits to nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children. The program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was one he targeted on the campaign trail and vowed to erase from the books on his first day in office.

“In terms of disappointed, we’re beyond that point,” said Chris Chmielenski, a spokesman for Numbers USA, a group seeking to limit immigration. “He’s already lost our support on this.”

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Groups both supportive of and opposed to the program are bracing for a decision about its fate, which could come as soon as Friday, ahead of a looming deadline on Tuesday when a legal case against the program is scheduled to proceed.

The Trump White House has sent signals it’s going to announce a plan soon, and it has a propensity to issue controversial decisions on Friday afternoons.

Already the White House has privately delayed a decision twice, according to one White House staffer who is not permitted to discuss the internal deliberations publicly.

Despite his fiery rhetoric about the program as a candidate, Trump has sounded more conflicted about the program since taking office. “We are going to deal with DACA with heart,” Trump said during a February news conference, a comment taken by many as a signal of some support for the program.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday “a final decision” on DACA hasn’t been made and the program is still “under review.” She said that the president “stands by” his statement that those in the DACA program will be treated with compassion.

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Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that seeks to limit immigration, says she’s baffled that Trump has not acted already.

“It’s bad policy. It’s bad politics,” Vaughan said, arguing the DACA plan amounts to a “giant rolling amnesty” that rewards illegal immigration. “It is festering among his supporters, from the discussions I have had.”

It’s also a widely popular program beyond Trump’s core supporters: Nearly 80 percent of voters, including 72 percent of Republicans, believe that people brought to the US as children should be allowed to stay in the country, according to an April poll by the market research firm Morning Consult.

That means a decision to repeal DACA, while appealing to his base, will do little to bolster flagging public support for the Trump administration, according to recent polls.

Only 34 percent of American approve of the job that Trump is doing, according to Gallup’s tracking poll. And 56 percent of voters believe Trump is “tearing the country apart” according to a Fox News poll published Wednesday.

If the administration acts to end or curb the program, several paths are available: The White House could completely end it, immediately revoking about 800,000 work permits and putting those people in legal limbo, eligible for deportation. That’s the scenario advocates of the program fear most.

Those eligible for DACA must have been younger than 31 years old as of June 15, 2012, when the Obama administration announced the program, and younger than 16 years old when they were first brought to the country.

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“This is as egregious as it gets for these young people who came to this country,” said Peter Boogaard, a former Obama staffer who worked on the DACA program. “They did what the government asked them to do. They came forward. They came out of the shadows.”

Boogaard is now a spokesman for FWD.us, an advocacy group connected to the tech world that is pressuring the White House to keep the DACA program in place.

“This is uniquely terrible for the individuals,” he said. “Also for their families and communities in a way that we have not seen. These are far and away the most sympathetic cases.”

But even many who want the program to end acknowledge that an abrupt halt to the program would be disruptive.

“It would be difficult politically to announce, ‘We’re going to revoke the work permits of people who already have them,’ ” said Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies. “There is a lot of sympathy for this group of illegal immigrants. They didn’t set out to violate the laws.”

Vaughan wants to see the president stop issuing permits to new DACA applications. So far this year at least 17,000 new permits have been issued and 107,000 existing DACA permits were reauthorized, according to figures released by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Those numbers are from January through March, so it’s impossible to tell if those were granted during the Trump era or in the last 20 days of the Obama administration.

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She’d like to see Trump halt any new applications and decline to renew existing work permits. Those permits need to be renewed every two years.

Advocates for the program argue that such a move would also be painful. Roughly 1,400 people would be put out of work every single day that the DACA renewals are put on hold, according to a report published this week by the Center for American Progress and FWD.us, two groups aligned with Democrats.

Another option includes denying new DACA requests, while allowing people who are already participating in the program to continue renewing their work permits.

Trump can also continue to do nothing, which would thrust the program into the hands of the court system. Texas and nine other states have threatened to file a lawsuit over the DACA program if the Trump administration doesn’t take action to stop it by Tuesday. These states have also said they’ll ask a judge to revive an older case related to DACA that has been on hold for nearly a year.

CNN reported Thursday that the White House is examining whether that deadline can be delayed more, given the hurricane damage ongoing in Texas.

But, either way, the legal action is still set to go forward in either days or weeks. That would force the Trump administration to either defend the program in court or walk away from it, leaving the program in the hands of a federal judge.

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Should the Trump administration decline to defend the program in court, advocates believe that states like California or Massachusetts might step in to argue for the program in court. Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey declined to confirm that the Bay State would get involved, but said Healey is “considering legal options to defend the program.”

Trump was far more decisive on an Obama program known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents or DAPA.

That initiative would have granted legal status to undocumented immigrants who have children in the United States. It was proposed via a memorandum in 2014, but halted by a judge and never implemented.

The program would have affected as many as five and a half million people, according to the Dornsife Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC.

In June the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice issued a memo rescinding the program.


Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com.