WASHINGTON — The clock is ticking on the fate of nearly 800,000 unauthorized immigrants, sometimes known as “Dreamers,” who came to the U.S. as children but who will become eligible for deportation if Congress fails to provide a legislative solution within the next six months.

The decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to end the 2012 policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was denounced by the U.S. Catholic bishops as “reprehensible.” But others believe Trump may have provided the Church an opportunity to make the case morally and politically for a permanent solution to the legal limbo of unauthorized immigrant youth.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Sept. 5 that the Trump administration would begin an orderly winding down of DACA because it did not believe the policy could be defended as constitutional in federal courts. The administration was responding to the Sept. 5 litigation deadline set by 10 attorneys general who charged DACA was effectively a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers.

“Simply put, if we are to further our goal of strengthening the constitutional order and the rule of law in America, the Department of Justice cannot defend this type of overreach,” Sessions said, referring to President Barack Obama’s policy, which allowed certain eligible immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children by their parents to receive a two-year renewable protection from deportation and the ability to obtain work or go to school.

As part of the wind-down, the federal government will no longer accept new applications for DACA. Existing DACA recipients whose papers expire by March 5 will have until Oct. 5 to renew them for another two-year term. But if March 5 comes and goes without Congress having achieved a legislative solution, then each DACA beneficiary becomes eligible for possible arrest and removal back to his legal country of origin — even if he has no experience of it.

President Trump, in a separate statement about why Congress needed to act, said that he does “not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents. But we must also recognize that we are a nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”

“The legislative branch, not the executive branch, writes these laws — this is the bedrock of our constitutional system, which I took a solemn oath to preserve, protect and defend,” he said.


 The Bishops’ Position

The U.S. bishops have made clear that they view the potential deportation of massive numbers of young people to be a serious issue involving the dignity of the human person. A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement denounced the administration’s cancellation of DACA as a “reprehensible” decision that created “unnecessary fear for DACA youth and their families.”

The USCCB also stated it would strongly urge Congress to work for a legislative solution.

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the USCCB’s vice president, said in a separate statement that allowing the end of DACA to result in the deportation of 790,000 youth who “came to this country through no fault of their own” would be a “national tragedy and a moral challenge to every conscience.”

“It is not right to hold these young people accountable for decisions they did not make and could not make,” he said.

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, in his own statement said that while the U.S. government “has many considerations to balance” in responding to migration, “offering special protection to those who only know the United States as home is a reasonable measure of compassion.” 

According to a Morning Consult/POLITICO poll conducted just days before the administration’s announcement, 58% of all registered U.S. voters believed the unregistered youth should stay and have a path to citizenship. And even among voters who identified as Republicans, who were less supportive overall, a majority still favored giving them a permanent legal status of either citizenship or legal residency.

Ashley Feasley, director of policy at the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, said the bishops’ conference has already endorsed two possible solutions. The DREAM Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, would provide legal status and a path to citizenship for an estimated 1 million youth without legal status. The USCCB has also backed the BRIDGE Act, which would codify DACA into law and extend it for three years while Congress comes up with a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

“We’re hopeful there is a legislative solution to this,” she said.

However, Feasley noted challenges: Congress has a tight window to get some kind of legislative fix enacted for “Dreamers” on top of other priority unfinished agenda items. She said the USCCB intended to activate the Catholic “grassroots” and “grasstops” leadership to both push for a legislative solution and provide spiritual care to them in this time of uncertainty.

“We’re moving forward to protect our youth,” she said.


Rule-of-Law Concerns

But Marguerite Telford, communications director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that favors restrictive immigration policies, said the bishops have not addressed the need to respect the rule of law.

“If the ends justifies the means, then the rule of law is gone,” she said.

Telford pointed out that DACA was always “a temporary reprieve” and kept recipients in a legal limbo subject to renewal every two years, as Congress kept deferring its responsibilities into the indefinite future, or until the federal courts struck it down.

“This is the best thing that ever happened to [DACA beneficiaries],” Telford said. “They should be celebrating this because [Trump] pushed Congress to make a decision.”

Trump himself communicated that his action was intended to promote a bipartisan legislative solution to protect current DACA recipients. Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, “and even very conservative members of Congress,” all support this goal, the president told reporters Sept. 6, adding that he hopes for “a great DACA transaction where everybody is happy and now they don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Telford believed a deal to provide an amnesty solution will likely be involved in a bill that requires certain trade-offs, such as border-security measures and legal immigration reductions.

However, Edward Mechmann, policy director at the Archdiocese of New York, surmised that a standalone bill would have a much greater chance of success, given congressional Republicans’ struggle this year to pass complex legislation.

Mechmann, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is concerned that the Church is heading into uncharted territory where failing to get the DACA recipients’ status legalized would create a “crisis” situation for both the Church and society at large. DACA recipients, he said, are documented unauthorized immigrants, and many of them now attend Catholic schools and parishes or are employed by the Church and its ministries across the U.S.  

Sessions announced in April that federal prosecutors were now required to consider for prosecution anyone caught “harboring” unauthorized immigrants. Mechmann noted “the word ‘harbor’ [in the statute] is very broad,” and he could not rule out the possibility that some priests and religious would face jail time if they tried to engage in civil disobedience and protect a former DACA beneficiary from arrest and deportation, particularly if they were found to have lied, misled or refused to comply with the orders of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer.

The current policy of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bars ICE agents from locations such as parishes, schools and hospitals, but those categories would not cover other locations, such as Catholic charities or diocesan offices. But Mechmann said those guidelines are subject to change, and there is no legal recourse if DHS decides not to stay within its own boundaries.

“Most people don’t realize how vulnerable we are,” Mechmann said. “People have no concept of how powerful the Justice Department is when they decided to enforce the law. The power is mind-boggling.”


The Human Dimension

The news has already upended the world of Miguel (last name withheld by request), a 22-year-old Brooklynite and a DACA recipient. He told the Register that his parents brought him to the U.S. as a 3-year-old. DACA allowed him to have the opportunity to get into college, obtain a driver’s license to legally operate a car, and experience a level of normalcy that children with legal status take for granted.

Miguel said he has no memory of Mexico or any personal connections with relatives there. All his growing up took place in a mixed Irish-Mexican neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he spoke Spanish with his parents at home “and English at school and everywhere else.”

He reapplied for DACA in August, but is trying to envision what his “Plan B” would look like if he were deported to Mexico. Like his Irish neighbors, he is proud of his heritage, but the reality is that he grew up American, and that is the world he knows.

“I’m still trying to figure out what I can do,” he said. “We just need a lot of prayers and support at this moment.”

Princeton professor Robert George, a Catholic whose area of expertise covers both American jurisprudence and the natural law, told the Register that the Church’s concern in this matter stems from the principle that all human beings have profound, inherent and equal dignity. Governments have to respect and honor the human dignity of anyone falling under their jurisdiction, “even if they got there unlawfully.”

“It can’t be respectful to deport someone to a culture where they have no connections and tear them from their network of friendships and relationships,” he said.

George said the principle that drives pro-life advocates to have concern for unborn children that are not their own also drives the Church to say Catholics must stand up for the dignity of migrants, because “there is a risk that bad things are going to happen to the young men and women that are deported.”

At the same time, he said the Church does not demand a society abrogate its just laws or constitutional systems. He pointed out that critics of President Obama’s policy noted the president himself denied he had the authority to enact it, and then went ahead in 2012 without any explanation. Critics included those who agreed with the policy’s aims but could not see how unilateral executive action could be justified under U.S. constitutional norms.

However, George said Catholics had a responsibility to “avoid partisan gamesmanship” and respect the different points of view in the debate over immigration, as they engage politically in hopes of achieving an outcome that aligns with Church teaching on the dignity of the human person. Otherwise, it would become “impossible” to do a good job serving the interests of “Dreamers” and the common good.

“We have an opportunity now to have a proper debate and establish the policy in a proper constitutional manner,” he said. “And it should be humane and absolutely respect the dignity of everyone who is here.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.