When the Trump administration chose to terminate President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September, it gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a way to protect the program’s nearly 700,000 young immigrants from deportation. After months of negotiations, there is no deal in sight, and exacerbating lawmakers’ usual foot-dragging and partisan divisions is widespread confusion about whether the deadline for action is truly just a few weeks away.
In early January, a federal judge blocked the Trump administration from rescinding DACA, and ordered the government to continue to accept renewal applications. The administration appealed and is fighting to take the case directly to the Supreme Court. DACA recipients are currently scrambling to apply for two-year renewals of their protections before a higher court has the chance to overturn the injunction.
The President, meanwhile, has several times made offhand comments suggesting he might act unilaterally to extend DACA protections if Congress fails to come up with a bill by the deadline.
But White House Chief of Staff John Kelly put the kibosh on that idea on Tuesday, telling reporters as he visited the Capitol that he “doubts very much” Trump would extend the program, adding he’s “not so sure this president has the authority to extend it.”
Amid this confusion, some GOP lawmakers have suggested that the March 5 deadline is “artificial” and have demonstrated little urgency for working out a deal. But many on both sides of the aisle have said that prolonging the uncertainty would be intolerable.
“Our best course is to act like the March deadline is the deadline rather than play games with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told reporters on a conference call on Monday. “Any time there’s court action like the injunction combined with ongoing aggressive effort by the administration to overturn it, that creates more uncertainty. It provides no confidence or security for Dreamers to have this hanging by a thread in various courthouses around the country.”
Though thousands of DACA recipients have already lost their protections and their work permits because they were unable to renew them before Trump’s executive order’s October cutoff, the March 5 deadline will mark a ramping up of those expirations, from fewer than 200 per day to more than 1,000.
While General Kelly told reporters Tuesday that DACA recipients “are not a priority for deportation” if Congress allows their protections to expire, that is cold comfort for Dreamers like Juan Escalante, who works for the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice.
“It’s a big black hole in the calendar,” he told TPM. “People will lose their jobs, lose their privileges to drive. One of the main things I’m wrestling with is the psychological effect this is having. Everyone is fearful. I can’t plan for my future. For people to be under that stress, it really does break you down emotionally. And when this administration is so unpredictable, there’s a complete breakdown of any kind of trust.”
Escalante added that he and other Dreamers are not at all confident they will not be targeted for deportation based on the Trump administration’s record.
“ICE has a database of every single person in the DACA program. Where we live, our fingerprints. It’s way more information than they have on the average undocumented immigrant,” he said. “So on March 6 if I go to the media and speak out in defense of myself are they going to come after me?”
Escalante pointed to the case of Daniela Vargas, a DACA recipient who came to the U.S. at age 11, who was arrested and turned over to Homeland Security after speaking at a press conference criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“That young woman in Mississippi spoke out against father and brother being detained, and and ICE came back to retaliate against her,” Escalante said. “They tried to deport her. They took her into custody. And if it hadn’t been for the outcry from the community, she would have been deported, even though she was eligible for a DACA renewal. So it’s all fine and dandy for Kelly to say we’re not a priority, but all the evidence points to this being where we’re headed.”
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