WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump is mostly getting a pass from his fellow Republicans and immigration hardliners for doing the very thing they castigated his predecessor for: giving undocumented young people work permits.
But beneath that silence there’s a divide among conservatives. Some are fine with Trump biding his time, even if it means he’s breaking a campaign promise that he’d end President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants temporary work authorization and deportation reprieve to young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Others, including Trump’s allies, are losing patience.
“When a president takes an oath to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, that means he needs to enforce the laws. He doesn’t get to choose which laws will be enforced,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Huffington Post. “That’s the problem we had with Obama, and we have this problem five weeks into the Trump presidency right now.”
Trump’s vow to end DACA has become a classic case of campaign promises meeting governing reality. It was easy for the president to say on the campaign trail that he would “immediately” end DACA and its protections for more than 750,000 undocumented young people. It was easy for Republicans to vote to dismantle it under Obama, who blocked all of their efforts.
But Trump is apparently finding it harder to follow through now that he’s in office. And now, with the GOP in power and owning the matter, Republicans have suddenly become more appreciative of the slow pace at which government often works.
Instead of calling for the immediate end of DACA, which affects young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, Trump now says he wants to “work something out.” He reportedly told journalists on Tuesday that he was open to granting Dreamers legal status. During aggressive deportation raids targeting undocumented immigrants ― including those who have committed petty crimes ― the Trump administration has let DACA recipients largely go free.
More importantly, the Department of Homeland Security is still granting and renewing DACA authorization. In other words, it’s not just looking the other way ― it’s actively giving Dreamers the benefits Trump said were unconstitutionally granted.
The whiplash has left Trump’s longtime defenders contemplating whether there is some larger objective the president hasn’t revealed yet.
“Is it one of those things that is irredeemable? No, maybe he’s got something up his sleeve that will kind of work it out,” said Roy Beck, president of the immigration reduction group NumbersUSA, who nonetheless conceded that the president had reneged on a main campaign promise. “But if giving out work permits and renewals was unconstitutional while Obama was doing it, then it’s unconstitutional while his administration is doing it.”
Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman Ira Mehlman said he doesn’t think Trump is breaking a campaign promise “just yet.” But he said FAIR, which also advocates lower immigration levels, is hoping Trump will propose something “sooner rather than later.”
“I don’t think we’ve reached the point of impatience yet, but we’re certainly expecting that he will come to some kind of decision,” Mehlman said. “Our view was that DACA was unconstitutional to begin with, and there’s no really good reason to perpetuate it.”
So far, Republicans are giving Trump space with respect to his approach to DACA. It’s a benefit of the doubt they didn’t extend to others. Paul Nehlen, who challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last election as soft on immigration, said it would “absolutely be a disappointment” if Trump didn’t end DACA. But he isn’t calling him to task just yet.
“I’m not going to say ‘72 days in and he’s got to have this thing,’” Nehlen said in an interview at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “If we get a year in, a year and a half in and DACA hasn’t done it, I’m going to be screaming from the mountaintops ‘We’ve gotta get this thing done.’”
Other longtime opponents of DACA were even less critical of Trump’s current lack of action. Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who defeated former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in part by painting him as “pro-amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, said Trump seems to be going down his list on immigration orders. He didn’t seem concerned that the president hasn’t gotten to DACA yet.
“He just got [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions in two weeks ago, so they’re going after the ‘rough hombres’ or whatever he calls them,” Brat said. “It was a promise, and I’ve heard they’ve got a list of their promises, so we’ll see what they do.”
To that point, Trump has hardly been a major disappointment for hard-line anti-immigration advocates. His administration called for more immigration agents and gave them broader latitude to detain people by eliminating Obama-era policies to let some undocumented immigrants go while pursuing others. The Trump administration has even detained some DACA recipients.
For those actions, Trump appears to have been granted latitude on DACA ― a far trickier element of immigration law with far more delicate political ramifications. Conservative talk radio, for example, has been notably kind to Trump on the matter, even after spending years fomenting much of the anti-immigration reform sentiment that animated the Republican Party. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh went so far as to say last week that he was open to some type of relief for Dreamers, as long as Trump deports others, increases border measures and excludes adult criminals and potential criminals from the same type of “amnesty.”
“A lot of people think that Trump’s caving, because if you allow the Dreamers to stay, we’re talking 750,000 Dreamers, kids, who each have two parents who could come in,” Limbaugh said. “Look, this is a no-win. Nobody’s going to win anything by deporting a bunch of kids that we let in ― whoever did, Obama, whatever. ... We’ll have to see how it all manifests itself. Look, there’s a caveat here: In order for the Dreamer thing to be acceptable, the rest of this stuff has to be by the book.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday about why Trump hasn’t eliminated DACA yet.
To DACA critic Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, it seems like the administration is in a “fetal crouch, hoping that the issue goes away.”
“The fact that they’re doing nothing on DACA ― they’re not even stopping new grants ― suggests to me that there’s differing opinions in the White House and absolutely no idea of how to proceed,” Krikorian said. “I had a grad school adviser who used the football analogy ‘When in doubt, fall on the ball.’ That seems to be what they’re doing.”
Matt Fuller contributed reporting.