Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Sept. 5 the highly anticipated decision by President Donald Trump to gradually rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive order that effectively shielded 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation. While causing a firestorm of criticism, the actions of the president nevertheless open a window for a bipartisan effort to find the common good on a pressing and polarizing issue. (See story.)
The criticism was, indeed, sharp. Speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, its president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and vice president, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, declared the cancellation of the DACA program to be “reprehensible.” In a letter to President Trump, they wrote, “It causes unnecessary fear for DACA youth and their families. These youth entered the U.S. as minors and often know America as their only home.”
DACA required that the applicant had arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and had lived in the country since June 15, 2007. Once approved by the immigration department, a DACA recipient could obtain a valid driver’s license, enroll in college and legally secure a job. However, the program did not provide a path to citizenship or legal permanent residency, and DACA recipients could defer deportation for two years, after which they had to apply for renewal.
The Trump administration clearly hoped to deflect some criticism with the instruction sent to the Department of Homeland Security to phase out DACA, rather than end it abruptly. New applications for work permits will not be accepted, but all existing work permits will be honored until their termination dates in two years. Applications already in process will advance, as will renewals. Finally, permits will not begin to expire for six months and will remain active for up to 24 months.
The gesture did little to ease the pushback. Bishops across the United States have described the decision as “heartbreaking,” “shortsighted” and “devastating.”
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, who has some 17,000 DACA youth in his archdiocese, wrote, “The beneficiaries of DACA are children who were brought to the United States as minors. For many, the United States is the only country they know. They have been educated here and serve in many of our parishes. … It is important to uphold the Constitution, but we must always put people first in our politics.”
Hard political reality, however, is causing much of the upheaval involving DACA. While Trump’s move is an effort to fulfill a standing campaign promise to deal with illegal immigration, it is also a tacit recognition that DACA has from the beginning stood on very tenuous legal ground.
When Obama signed the executive order, he acknowledged that it was “a temporary stopgap measure.” Attorney General Sessions stated flatly his opinion that it was not statutorily authorized and could be judged an unconstitutional exercise of discretion by the executive branch.
Both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that it will likely not survive judicial scrutiny. Further, 10 state attorneys general threatened they would push ahead with a lawsuit if the president did not act against DACA by Sept. 5.
As complicated as DACA might be, this is nevertheless a rare moment of opportunity for the country. By granting a six-month window, the administration has shifted the problem to Congress — which, unlike the president, is constitutionally charged to enact legislation — where there is a chance that comprehensive immigration reform will at last be achieved on a bipartisan basis.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan acknowledged the window of opportunity: “It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country.”
Yet the president’s advisers and the leadership of both parties know well that the nation is bitterly polarized and that accomplishing a legislative solution is very difficult, if not impossible, in this fevered political environment.
In a column for the L.A. Archdiocese’s Angelus website, Archbishop Gomez wrote, “All sides seem willing to leave the issue unresolved, even if that means people continue to suffer — all for the sake of not ‘giving the other side a win.’”
Members of both parties now have the chance to come together and implement immigration reform that encompasses not only the young people impacted by DACA, but the entire immigration crisis. And if Congress and the president are looking for answers to the problem, there is much that the Church can offer.
The Church begins by recognizing the moral obligation to protect the life and dignity of every human being, especially the most weak and vulnerable, including young people. Government policies should reflect that most fundamental reality. Catholic social teaching reminds us that governments have two important duties: Welcome the stranger with charity and out of recognition of the human person, but also secure the border and enforce the law for the sake of the common good. That means avoiding both an enforcement-only policy and an open-borders policy.
In other words, finding balance between justice and mercy.
In a time of a hyperpolarized political divide that has paralyzed the search for the common good, DACA is a potent reminder that policy decisions and legislation have real-world consequences.
Archbishop Gomez writes, “We need to keep in mind that beneath all the politics, there are real people, real issues and legitimate differences of opinion. That should not be an excuse for inaction. It should be the reason for coming together and finding a way to move forward.”
On this, President Trump, the U.S. bishops and leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill can all agree. Moments of opportunity for a country to achieve the common good can be fleeting. Let us pray that this one is not squandered.