“DACA will continue to exist in Chicago,” promises Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, half an hour before President Donald Trump’s administration announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, known as DACA. Ending DACA is morally, politically and economically wrong, says Mr Emanuel, the grandson of a Jewish immigrant who as a boy of 13 fled the pogroms in his native Moldova. For Mr Emanuel it makes no sense to end an initiative that has helped hundreds of thousands of young people to work legally, drive legally, study and obtain health insurance.
DACA gives immigrants who arrived in America illegally as minors without papers a renewable, two-year reprieve from deportation. Applicants must have been younger than 31 on June 15th 2012, when DACA started, and must have arrived in America before their 16th birthday. They have to be at school or university, high-school graduates or honourably discharged from the army. All are vetted for criminal history and whether they pose a threat to national security. More than 780,000 people have been approved as “dreamers”, which is what DACA recipients became known as.
DACA was introduced by then president Barack Obama in 2012, as an executive action, after he had waited in vain for Congress to legislate. Before then, Mr Obama had publicly questioned whether he had the authority to change immigration law from the White House: many Republicans decided that his executive action was yet more proof of an imperial presidency, a stance that was easy for Republicans in the House to agree on, and which ignored the dilemma over how to take a hard line on immigration without deporting people who grew up in America.
Faced with a decision on whether to defend an edict by his predecessor against a legal challenge from a host of Republican attorneys-general, a case that he might ultimately have lost in the Supreme Court, Mr Trump has thrown the problem back at Congress. The federal government will no longer accept new applications from undocumented immigrants under DACA and that those enrolled in DACA will only have a valid work permit for a maximum of 24 months. Mr Trump, who promised to end DACA on the campaign trail but has also repeatedly said that its recipients are “terrific” called on Congress to replace DACA with more permanent legislation before it expires on March 5th 2018. “I am not going to just cut DACA off, but rather provide a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act,” said Mr Trump in a statement.
Will Congress do this time what it has failed to do before? Dreamers inspire sympathy from most, but not all sides. Kris Kobach, who has advised the president on immigration and is running for governor of Kansas, said they should “go home and get in line”. Steve King, a hardliner on immigration in the House, predicted a civil war among Republicans over DACA. The pro-business wing of the Republican Party would like to see DACA in law; the Stephen Bannon wing is set against it. The recent history of intra-party fights has seen the pro-business lot lose almost every tussle. So although Mr Trump wants something like DACA passed by Congress, such a bill would wind up being a test of how powerful a hold Trumpian identity politics has over the party.
Back in Chicago, Dreamers are anxious but emboldened by the support they receive from fellow citizens. One is Luke Hwang, who is working on a PhD in chemistry at the University of Chicago. Luke came to America at the age of 11 from South Korea with his parents who settled in a “Korea town” in New Jersey. He won an all-tuition merit scholarship at the City University of New York where he graduated summa cum laude in 2013 with a bachelor of science in chemistry and the highest grade-point average of any chemistry major ever attending the school. Luke still needs two years to finish his PhD at the University of Chicago, but the funding of his scholarship as well as his work as researcher for the university depend on his DACA status. “I stand to lose everything,” he says.
Irakere Picon, who was born in Mexico in 1988 and came to America at the age of two without papers, is today a lawyer with the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Legal Protection Fund. He says he does not allow worries about his DACA status dominate his life though he admits that it would be “devastating” to be sent back to Mexico, a country he barely knows. “We are resilient enough to work around this,” he adds. America has been good to Mr Picon so far—he was the recipient for a scholarship at the law school at Northern Illinois University. He, like other dreamers, seems sure that his adopted home country will not let him down.