As the Senate debates immigration this week, a lot of the focus will be on one date: March 5.
That is the deadline President Trump set for Congress back in September, when he announced he would phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals over six months but was willing to sign a legislative fix for Dreamers, or immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally as children.
March 5 is both more and less important than meets the eye. The Trump administration has repeatedly said that Dreamers would not be a top enforcement priority even if immigration talks stall and no DACA deal is struck.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told CBS in an interview last month that Dreamers who do not commit crimes are “not going to be a priority of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I’ve said that before. That’s not the policy of DHS.”
Felons, terrorism suspects, and people with outstanding deportation orders would remain higher enforcement priorities than Dreamers, even without DACA. Many, if not most, of the program’s beneficiaries are unlikely to ever be removed from the country, much less be subject to mass deportations come March.
Even if they won’t be a major enforcement priority, however, the end of DACA would heighten Dreamers’ risk of deportation. Hundreds of them would lose the right to work and be lawfully present in the United States each day. Employers will find it precarious to hire them.
The Trump administration has specifically indicated that it is not categorically exempting any class of immigrant without legal status from deportation, even if it is not prioritizing them all equally for detention or removal.
Immigrant groups frequently point out that some are already losing their DACA grants. One commonly cited figure, originating with the liberal Center for American Progress, is that these protections are expiring at a rate of 122 people a day. Some 22,000 DACA beneficiaries whose status was set to expire between Sept. 5 and March 5 failed to renew before the administration’s one-month deadline last fall.
“We know firsthand how important it is to not stay silent while our brothers and sisters face the cruelty of being separated from their families and the fear of having to possibly return to a place they have not lived in for decades,” Richard Morales, LA RED program and policy director, said in a statement. “Deportation defense is an organizing tool to build power and protect immigrant communities.”
Trump has said he is willing to sign legal protections for a DACA-eligible population of 1.8 million — larger than the 690,000 originally enrolled in the program — in exchange for border security funding and some legal immigration reforms most Democrats have so far opposed.
The first day of debating immigration in the Senate largely stalled. The House appears set to take up a more conservative bill, with the support of the Republican whip team.
In the absence of DACA, it is inevitable that someone sympathetic will be detained or deported. This is likely to receive wall-to-wall (no pun intended) media coverage. Democrats say they believe this will trigger a political backlash that will force Trump to either extend the deadline past March 5 — something he has occasionally expressed openness to doing, even as the White House has suggested this is unlikely — or accede to a bill more to their liking.
The application process for the program would likely have to be ramped back up in any event.
One Democratic strategist, requesting anonymity to speak candidly, said that decoupling DACA from a threatened government shutdown actually strengthens the party’s bargaining posture. “We do better on the Dreamer issue when we separate it from other issues,” said the strategist.
Many Republicans point to the absence of any real backlash as Dreamers have gradually lost deportation protections and the fact that Senate Democrats have twice backed down from an immigration-driven shutdown fight. This, they say, shows Democrats privately realize their hand is not as strong as they publicly claim.
“This isn’t as a big an issue as Washington, editorial writers, and newspaper reporters want to believe it is,” said a Republican strategist requesting anonymity to speak candidly.
Former President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012 after Congress failed to pass the Dream Act and Democratic support for his own deportation policies — intended to enhance the credibility of future enforcement promises in conjunction with comprehensive immigration reform — collapsed. That shows some level of grassroots support, at least among Democrats, drove DACA into existence.
Whether DACA could legally be justified on the basis of prosecutorial discretion — it allows the issuance of work permits and de facto legal status, rather than simply setting enforcement priorities — was a hotly debated question. The Trump administration has said it is Congress’ job and the president himself is pointing the finger at the Democrats.
“If Democrats want a deal, it’s really up to them,” Trump said this week.