President Donald Trump's decision to scrap DACA six months from now—DACA being Barack Obama's deferred deportation program for
"Dreamers," immigrants brought to this country without authorization as minors—is fiscally dumb, economically counterproductive, and morally reprehensible. The only upside of his move, which Trump didn't even have the cojones to announce himself, is that it might finally prod Congress to get off its derrière and create a path for permanent legal status for Dreamers instead of leaving their fates to presidential whims. But it's by no means certain that Congress can do this cleanly, if at all.
Congress has given the president immense statutory discretion in enforcing immigration law. And just as Obama had the legal authority to create the DACA program, Trump has the authority to scrap it, regardless of Attorney General Jeff Sessions claims that the Obama action was illegal.
Obama gave qualified Dreamers with clean records a two-year reprieve ("parole") from deportation and temporary work authorization—not permanent green cards, mind you. After that, if they had remained in school or gainfully employed and if they generally kept out of trouble, they could apply for renewal. About 800,000 people obtained DACA status out of an estimated Dreamer population of a million-plus.
Up until now, the Trump administration had not only continued to renew the status of existing DACAs but also extended it to new Dreamers, all of which was "illegal" if AG Sessions is to be believed. This had raised hopes that Trump would preserve at least this program even as his Department of Homeland Security cracked down on the rest of the undocumented population. (Indeed, among former DHS Secretary John Kelly's first acts upon assuming office was to end the late Obama-era policy of limiting deportation action to criminal aliens and making all undocumented aliens, even those with no criminal records, fair game for removal.) Trump did, after all, say he has a "big heart" and would "take care" of Dreamers.
Apparently, he overestimated the size of his heart.
The vast majority of Dreamers have lived in America practically their entire lives, with little to no contact with their birthland. Many of them work, have served in the military, volunteered in relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey. So exiling them from a country where they have family, friends, and community ties to one where they have no roots at all is beyond cruel. To add insult to injury, the Dreamers who obtained deferred action status under DACA are especially vulnerable to deportation, because the government now has all their contact information.
Not only is there no harm in letting them stay, but there is a major upside to keeping them around.
Dreamers are 12.5 percent less likely to be incarcerated than natives with the same socioeconomic characteristics. The average DACA beneficiary is 22 years old, is employed, and earns about $17 an hour. Projecting from that, Ike Brannon calculates that they contribute $215 billion to the economy annually. Meanwhile, their fiscal costs are comparable to the fiscal costs of H-1B workers, which are minimal. Under current law, DACA beneficiaries are ineligible for means-tested welfare benefits that are provided by the federal government or funded through federal matching grants to the states. And few states extend welfare benefits to DACA Dreamers on their own. As a result, DACA beneficiaries contribute $60 billion more to taxes than they consume in benefits. All of that works out to about $275 billion in economic and fiscal contributions. And given that it costs Uncle Sam $10,000 to deport a Dreamer, the total deportation cost of all of them would be about $10 billion, adding up to over a quarter trillion total hit to America.
So even if you buy the idea that Dreamers are "lawbreakers," if there is any group worthy of a presidential "pardon," it's them. After all, over the last 50 years, almost every president has used his prosecutorial discretion to offer a reprieve to entire groups of unauthorized foreigners.
And yet Donald Trump, the man who had no compunctions pardoning a rogue cop like former Maricopa Country Sheriff Joe Arpaio, couldn't find it in his "big heart" to pardon the Dreamers. The White House is spinning this decision as an "emotional struggle" that was forced on the president by a group of red state legislators threatening to sue the program if he didn't scrap it by today. This would have put the president in the untenable position of having to defend the program, they claim, that the Supreme Court was likely to rule against given that a tied decision last year let a lower court ruling against DACA stand.
But the president doesn't know that. The fact of the matter is Trump put himself in a bad position with his harsh anti-immigration rhetoric that left him little wiggle room to manuver without losing face with his base. Otherwise, he could have taken the wind out of the lawsuit by declaring support in advance for a myriad bills—some by his own party—to protect the Dreamers. For example, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recently dusted off the DREAM Act, which would hand green cards to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children so long as they (1) graduate from high school or serve in the military, (2) pass a background check, (3) speak English, (4) demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history, and (5) pay a fee.
Likewise, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fl.) and 10 other Republicans have introduced the Recognizing America's Children Act, which would grant five-year conditional permanent status to immigrants who arrived before the age of 16; have been in the U.S. since January 1, 2012; have graduated high school; and have been accepted in college or vocational school, have applied to enlist in the military, or have existing valid work authorization. Their conditional status would be cancelled if they go on welfare, are dishonorably discharged from the military, or are unemployed for more than a year. The bill is arguably too harsh, since it leaves Dreamers so little margin for error.
Trump's move today seems designed to give the immigration hardliners in Congress vital ammunition to hold the fate of Dreamers hostage in order to extract concessions on enforcement action—funding to build the Great Wall of Trump, more appropriations for border patrol agents, etc. Indeed, immigration advocates who've been approaching Congressional Republicans for legislative action are finding little wllingness among them to move anything Dreamer-related unless it's tied to enforcement. The question is whether they'll settle for a modest or a large "pound" of flesh.
Maybe this will change now that the legislators actually have the Dreamers' fate in their hands. It's up to Congress to avert the humanitarian train wreck that this administration has set in motion.