The Trump administration's announcement Tuesday, that it will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — removing deportation protection and work permits from nearly 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants — unless Congress passes a bill in the next six months to protect DACA recipients, isn't a punt or a reprieve. It's an opportunity to deflect, or share, the responsibility for what would be an unprecedented act in US history.
There's never really been a time when a generation of people, raised and rooted in the United States, has been stripped of official recognition and pushed back into the precarity of unauthorized-immigrant life.
Even though DACA never officially legalized anyone, ending it would be, in a way, the biggest "illegalization" of immigrants in American history.
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Trump is counting on Congress to save DACA. That's an enormous gamble.
As a policy matter, it's straightforward: Ending DACA is unprecedented because DACA itself was more or less unprecedented. Never in US history had the government offered protection to so many people who didn't have (and weren't subsequently given) the opportunity to get full legal status from there.
The government has a lot of power to shape immigrants' lives — but it's never had perfect control over who immigrates to begin with. The history of immigrants who received DACA protections is unique, and the legal status to legitimize or delegitimize them is too. Often as not, when politicians try to reconcile law and reality, the result is that the law gets changed to bend to the reality — not that the reality is changed by enforcing or changing the law.
DACA was one such attempt. If Congress and the White House can't agree on a bill within a six-month timeframe, and the Trump administration rescinds DACA, the US will be in wholly uncharted territory.
Undoing DACA would widen the gulf between reality and law. And that gulf is, in some ways, broader than it's ever been before. What truly makes the end of DACA unprecedented, in the broad sweep of US history, is the size of that gap between the law and the reality.
With DACA hanging in the balance, America has a group of people on the verge of being socially integrated, but legally isolated — socially championed, but legally victimized — in a way we've never really seen before.
The choice between reconciling the law with the reality and creating an unprecedented chasm between the two lies with Congress and the White House. The stakes could not be higher.