DACA remains in place, but Dreamers still in limbo
The unnecessarily long and winding road our country has taken toward protecting Dreamers came to another intersection this month as the Supreme Court left in place a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The policy protects people brought to this country as children. They have gone to school and led law-abiding lives; some have served honorably in the armed forces. They are no doubt relieved that their immigration status will remain unchanged for the time being. But the Court’s decision just allows Congress to defer once again its responsibility to act on this problem.
DACA was always intended to be a stop-gap measure. Introduced in 2012 by President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security, it lacked any real path to citizenship or permanent residency. But it provided participants the peace of mind that they would not face sudden deportation, and allowed them to work legally, get a driver’s license, and go to school.
It wasn’t much, but it was a way of letting participants tread water while they waited for Congress to decide their fate.
In the eight years that have passed since DACA was introduced, and the nearly three years since President Trump announced the decision to terminate the program, I have waited along with most of the country for Congress to act. As a university president, I have a personal concern for DACA students on our campus, and for their undocumented peers who did not enroll in the program. Like other institutions around the country, Catholic University has benefited from the part they played in our community.
At the same time, as a student and teacher of our system of constitutional government, I have been surprised and dismayed at the collective shrug Congress continues to demonstrate about the issue. In an era when almost every matter of public concern divides along partisan lines, 86 percent of Americans support a right to residency for undocumented childhood arrivals.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) first introduced a bill — the DREAM Act — that provided conditional status and a path to citizenship in 2001. In the succeeding 19 years, 10 versions of this act have been introduced and failed. Why can’t we pass this law? Why does Congress keep pushing the problem over to the president and the Department of Homeland Security, when the Constitution expressly gives it the power “To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization?”
The Framers anticipated that the executive branch would be more decisive and “energetic” than Congress, as Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 70. We have seen that in President Obama’s initiation of DACA and in President Trump’s termination of it.
But we see another factor at work today in Congress’s unwillingness to act. The country is divided enough, not on the proper treatment of Dreamers but on the larger topic of immigration, that no version of the DREAM Act can pass without some compromises. Some members will insist, for example, on more border security in return for supporting childhood arrivals.
We are beginning to recognize, though, that in an age when social media are the forum for discussing matters of public concern, issues are reduced to simple matters of pro and con, and opinions move toward the poles. This produces timidity on both right and left; no one wants to occupy the middle.
The appeal of deferring to the president and his agencies is that it allows members of Congress to declare their positions on a single objective (DACA) without having to pay a price to achieve it. Let the president take the heat, and the Court decide whether he can get away with it.
The Court’s decision to leave DACA in place, for now, allows Congress to get through another electoral season without doing its job. But sooner or later it will have to settle this matter. It has deferred action on childhood arrivals for too long.
John Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former president of the Association of American Law Schools.