The Need for Nuance in the DACA Debate

President Donald J. Trump has an unfortunate penchant for acting impulsively on complex and sensitive issues. Trump’s tendency for sweeping and usually unclear statements leaves the public outraged and with many unanswered questions. The Trump administration’s announcement to disband Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was met with a wave of disapproval, confusion and scorn from many, including President Barack Obama, who called Trump’s decision “cruel.” The debate surrounding DACA, however, requires a comprehensive understanding of the program and a delicate balance of opposing interests. Trump and his administration failed to offer a nuanced approach to DACA.

In 2012, the Obama administration implemented DACA with the primary objective to shield children who were brought illegally by their parents to the United States from deportation. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) set forth a list of eligibility requirements when the plan was enacted in 2012, the most salient of which demand that applicants 1) must have entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday; 2) are under the age of 31; and 3) have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor.

DACA raises two substantive political questions: First, is the program a good policy, and second, is the program legal? On one hand, it would be politically noxious and ethically questionable to ostensibly punish those who entered the country as children, presumably under the control and supervision of their guardians. On the other hand, some argue that acquiescing on DACA will signal to the international community that the U.S. will never deport undocumented immigrant children, thereby incentivizing foreigners to immigrate unlawfully with their children in hopes of them and their children gaining citizenship or legal status. In short, proponents of the latter position warn that DACA only intensifies and continues the cycle of illegal immigration followed by widespread governmental offerings of legal status.

The answer to the legal and constitutional question is far more straightforward: DACA is plainly unconstitutional. While the executive branch may, in some cases, use prosecutorial discretion when deciding whether to deport undocumented immigrants, it is not permitted to confer certain privileges or benefits to specific groups, like work permits or legal status, which DACA does. A task of that nature must be passed by Congress. In fact, if not for the tragic death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, the Supreme Court would likely have struck down Obama’s DACA expansion. Quite plainly, if DACA was left to anguish in the courts, it would not survive.

But what exactly does Trump’s decision mean for the future of DACA? Unfortunately, much of the political discourse surrounding the issue is both hyperbolic and misleading. It is true that Trump plans to cease accepting DACA applications six months from Sept. 5, however, he has also granted Congress the ability to pass a bill to deal with the matter. Congress may decide to uphold the status quo and legislatively enshrine DACA as it stands. Or, Congress might take the more plausible route — drafting and passing a bill that balances compassion with security.

Furthermore, and most importantly, during his statement on DACA, Trump reiterated his administration’s commitment to following Obama-era guidelines on immigration, stating that the DHS will focus “on criminals, security threats, recent border-crossers, visa overstays and repeat violators.” In other words, despite Trump’s dissolution of the unconstitutional DACA program, his immigration enforcement agencies will not target or deport law-abiding undocumented immigrants who would otherwise receive DACA privileges. The notion that Trump somehow intends to systematically deport large swaths of undocumented immigrants is implausible, ill-founded and fallacious.

The Trump administration is simply forcing Congress to legally address the DACA problem once and for all, while still abiding by and respecting the previous administration’s deportation policy. Trump tweeted that if Congress could not solve the DACA problem, then he would “revisit this issue.” While some take issue with the president’s campaign rhetoric surrounding immigration, actions speak louder than words; we must focus our judgement on Trump’s actions, not his polemical campaign statements.

Congress should work diligently to pass an immigration bill that delicately and skillfully balances compassion and security. A compassionate bill would create an official process for children — individuals under the age of 18 — brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents to receive legal status — not citizenship. The path to receive DACA status should be both rigorous and specific. To qualify, children who can prove they were brought to the U.S. by their parents must first pass a rigorous criminal background check. Then, applicants must show they have gainful employment, pursue higher education or serve in the military. Children too young to meet these requirements should continue through the school system until they are 18 — old enough to be assessed holistically as adults. The government should query deeply into each applicant’s past criminal and behavioral history, their financial and occupational status and their willingness and eagerness to integrate into American culture.  Although integration has no finite or precise definition, prospective DACA recipients must express understanding and agreement with our system of government, the importance of our individual rights and the notion of a “melting pot.”

Before Republicans agree to any of these elements, Democrats must agree to fund a physical border wall and a comprehensive E-Verify system for those entering the country with visas. These measures would decrease the frequency of both illegal border crossings and visa overstays. But, most importantly, both parties must overhaul the current policy of location-based immigration and chain migration — a confounding system of granting preference to relatives, some close and others distant, of lawful residents. Instead, our revamped immigration system should prioritize individuals who can tangibly benefit our society and our country’s economy by legally meeting our occupational needs and offering unique and marketable skills to American employers.

While Trump’s policy announcement was inarticulate and clumsy, simply casting it off as a xenophobic, hateful edict aimed at tearing apart families is inaccurate. The responsibility now rests on Congress to craft an immigration bill that not only addresses the question of undocumented children but also creates meaningful security and policy changes to ensure our country does not experience another immigration conundrum like this one.

Elias Neibart is a College sophomore from Morristown, New Jersey.

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