WHEN Karla Robles was 16 years old, she tried to register for college-entrance exams, like hundreds of thousands of high-school juniors in Chicago. She found that she could not—she lacked a social-security number. That was how Ms Robles learned she was in the United States illegally. Her parents brought her and her two brothers from Mexico when she was eight years old. Her father delivered pizzas, pumped petrol and drove trucks; her mother cleaned houses. Like many of America’s other 11m or so undocumented immigrants, Ms Robles and her brothers may have been heading for similar lives in the grey economy.
In June 2012, however, Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme. DACA gives two-year work and residency permits to undocumented immigrants younger than 31, without criminal records, who were brought to America before they were 16, provided they are in or have graduated from high school or university or were honourably discharged from the armed forces. DACA is not automatic; recipients must apply, pay $495 for each two-year renewable permit and provide a great deal of personal information. In five years the programme has brought nearly 800,000 young people—Americans in all but legal status—out of the shadows and let them live productive lives. Now those shadows beckon again. On September 5th President Donald Trump’s administration announced the end of DACA, though he promised no action would be taken against current recipients for six months, to give Congress the chance to act.
To Mr Trump’s supporters, this decision is overdue; cracking down on illegal immigrants defined his campaign, and as a candidate he vowed to end DACA on his first day in office. Once in office, however, he softened. “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me,” he said in February. In an interview with the Associated Press he told DACA recipients that they should “rest easy”, because his administration is “after the criminals, not them.”
The mixed messaging continues. Mr Trump said he had “great heart for these folks”, and called his decision a “gradual process, not a sudden phase-out”, but White House talking points urged DACA recipients to “prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States”. Mr Trump said that DACA was “an end-run around Congress” that “violat[es] the core tenets that sustain our Republic.” But then he changed tack, tweeting that if Congress fails to act, “I will revisit this issue!”
To announce DACA’s end, Mr Trump dispatched Jeff Sessions, his attorney-general, a longtime immigration sceptic, who said that DACA “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens”—a claim for which no evidence exists. The average DACA recipient came to America at the age of six, and today is 25 years old. According to a survey conducted by Tom Wong of the University of California, San Diego, most recipients say that DACA helped them get better-paying jobs and become more financially independent. Over 93% of DACA recipients above the age of 25 are employed (compared with 78% of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 54). They have strong ties to America; most have a spouse, child or sibling who is an American citizen. The Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank, found that they are likelier than their ineligible coevals to be in white-collar jobs, rather than the informal manual labour often performed by undocumented workers.
Mr Wong’s survey found that, freed from the fear of deportation, many DACA recipients are starting businesses, buying homes and cars and opening bank accounts. Mr Trump’s administration might have quietly continued DACA had ten state attorneys-general, led by Ken Paxton of Texas, not threatened to take the White House to court if it did not undo DACA by September 5th. That forced Mr Trump either to end the programme, or have Mr Sessions defend it in court.
Unsurprisingly, he chose to end it. Republicans have long had DACA in their cross-hairs. Mr Obama’s administration had called it a mere “exercise of prosecutorial discretion”, but Republicans never accepted that description. It became an article of faith on the right that DACA was, as Mr Sessions described it, “an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch”—though no court has found it so. But Mr Paxton and his nine would-be co-plaintiffs chose their judge carefully. They brought suit before Andrew Hanen, a federal district judge who in 2015 blocked a broader companion programme to DACA aimed at undocumented-immigrant parents of American citizens (though not on constitutional grounds). Ending DACA also allowed Mr Trump to further his attacks on his predecessor’s legacy, which seems to be an animating impulse of his presidency.
Now the work moves to Congress. Demonstrations broke out across the country when the administration announced its decision. Angel Padilla of Indivisible, a left-wing activist group that successfully mobilised against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, says, “we are ramping up our efforts…This White House has a vision of what America should look like, and brown people aren’t included in that vision.” Mr Obama broke his customary post-presidential quietude to call Mr Trump’s decision “self-defeating” and “cruel”.
Similar sentiments have been expressed in the business world. Tim Cook, Apple’s boss, said he was “dismayed” at Mr Trump’s decision, having previously tweeted that 250 Apple employees are DACA recipients, and “I stand with them.” More than 400 business leaders—including the bosses of Amazon, AT&T and Wells Fargo—posted an open letter urging Mr Trump not to scrap DACA. Loren Kruger, boss of a firm that makes shipping-pallets in Texas, says she signed because DACA recipients “are our neighbours, colleagues and friends. To send them to a country and culture they don’t know: that’s inhumane and unacceptable.”
It is another question whether Congress can overcome its dysfunction and act on such sentiments—and those of the vast majority of Americans, who also oppose deporting DACA-eligible immigrants. Legislative proposals exist. Lindsey Graham and Richard Durbin, a Republican and a Democratic senator, have once again reintroduced the DREAM Act—a piece of legislation that would do what DACA does and has been floating around Congress, close to but never quite passing, for more than 15 years. In the House Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, plans to introduce a discharge petition to force his BRIDGE Act—which freezes DACA in place for three years—to the House floor, bypassing the lengthy committee process. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican congressman from Florida, has introduced the RAC (Recognising America’s Children) Act, which does much the same thing as DACA but also includes a path to citizenship; Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, will introduce it in the Senate. Our YouGov poll shows that only half of those who say they voted for Mr Trump in 2016 oppose DACA.
But the popularity of any of these measures on their own is academic. Republicans will almost certainly demand enforcement measures. Some, Democrats could probably live with; others—notably the border wall, over which Mr Trump threatened to shut down government—they could not. The Republican leadership dislikes bringing measures to the floor that need Democratic votes to pass, which virtually any immigration bill will. The small but powerful coterie of hardliners in both houses have Breitbart at their backs, ready to rile up Mr Trump’s base against anything that smacks of “globalism”. The six-month delay means Congress may only get to immigration in March, right as moderate House Republicans start worrying about primary challenges from the right. “The uncertainty is nerve-racking,” says Karla Robles, now at university studying to become a teacher. It will not end soon.