As with many aspects of following Donald Trump’s plans and decisions, when it comes to official U.S. policy toward young immigrants brought here illegally by their parents, whiplash is expected.
It was only June when the president’s administration said it would keep a program that protects roughly 800,000 young immigrants, known as Dreamers, from deportation.
But now news comes that Trump could unwind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which could affect about 30,000 immigrants in Colorado alone whose parents brought them here illegally as children. About 17,000 of them are already DACA beneficiaries in the state.
If Trump wipes out DACA— fulfilling a campaign promise— attention might quickly shift to one of multiple proposed new laws intended to mitigate the impact, including one introduced by Colorado GOP Congressman Mike Coffman of Aurora and supported by one of his Democratic colleagues in the state.
The DACA program, created through an executive order by former President Barack Obama in 2012, offers two-year permits for work or study to immigrants of a certain age and who meet other criteria.
While Trump campaigned on ending DACA, he dialed back his rhetoric once he was elected. In the heated national debate over immigration, DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers for the unsuccessful Obama-era DREAM Act, are consistently seen as the most sympathetic group.
“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” Trump told TIME magazine in December. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
In April he said Dreamers could “rest easy,” and he is “not after the Dreamers, we are after the criminals.”
Then, in June, Trump’s then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, who is now Trump’s chief of staff at the White House, said the administration would keep DACA.
But reports just this week indicate that could change.
The New York Times, citing unnamed officials, reported Trump is being advised to scrap the program— a decision that could come this week. Meanwhile, a group of 10 Republican attorneys general have given Trump until Sept. 5 to tear up DACA or they intend to sue his administration over it.
In 2015, a group of 27 states run by Republicans were able to block an expansion of DACA to parents and green card holders because of a deadlock on the U.S. Supreme Court. Those states argued the executive order unconstitutionally violated the ways agencies are able to make decisions.
The AGs say if the Trump administration doesn’t phase out DACA they will similarly go after the program in court.
What if that happens?
It’s hard to say what the exact impacts would be since the administration hasn’t said what it will do with DACA— if anything.
But immigration rights advocates are bracing for something. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center already has a page up about what to do if the DACA program ends.
“I have learned not to predict anything from this administration,” says Royce Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council.
The what-ifs are plenty, Murray says. It’s possible the administration could just not renew any more DACA permits and those who have them could be protected until their DACA expiration date. Or the administration could make all permits immediately null and void. Perhaps it would grandfather in existing DACA-permit holders and just not accept new applicants.
“The threat is real,” says Murray, “and hopefully Congress will act.”
This is happening at a fraught time for immigrants in Colorado, right?
On Aug. 9, Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and Democratic Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne— both running for governor— joined Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and business and community leaders to put a spotlight on Trump’s potential threat to DACA.
Marissa Molina, a 25-year-old former teacher in the Denver Public Schools, told a story about how her family came to the U.S. from Mexico 15 years ago in search of better opportunities. Thanks to DACA, she said, she was able to get federal student loans and scholarships for college. Molina was honored by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change and currently manages community engagement at Rocky Mountain Prep.
“I sat in front of the TV too many times counting votes before, counting votes to make sure we had enough to pass the DREAM act, enough votes to make sure that students in the state of Colorado could have in-state tuition in spite of their immigration status and too many times those votes have come back too short,” she said. “Today, under the threat of DACA being repealed, I ask our elected official work together so that we can find a permanent legislative solution so that we can continue to be the contributing members of our community that we have been thus far.”
Congressman Polis said “young aspiring Americans deserve a permanent solution, and Congress must act to immediately address the hardship experienced by these Dreamers.” He said he was on their side, would fight to keep DACA, and advocate for “a permanent solution in Congress.”
Meanwhile, talk about Trump potentially rescinding DACA comes during the same week Denver City Council unanimously approved a measure that, with some caveats, bars city officials from cooperating with immigration authorities and keeps them out of certain parts of jails unless they have a warrant.
The move received blowback from ICE— the Denver field office called it an “irresponsible ordinance” and “dangerous policy”— and a Republican lawmaker named Dave Williams in conservative El Paso County penned a letter to Trump asking for more resources to crack down on illegal immigration and to look into city officials in so-called Sanctuary Cities.
So what can Congress do?
There are four proposed federal laws pending: The DREAM Act, The BRIDGE Act, The RAC Act, and The HOPE Act.
While they differ in varying degrees, each offer a path to citizenship except the BRIDGE Act, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
That one, sponsored by Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Aurora, who is up for reelection in 2018, and carrying support from Denver-area Congresswoman Diana DeGette, stands for Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy Act (BRIDGE). It wouldopen a three-year window of protection for Dreamers the federal government has already vetted.
Coffman, who represents a district home to many immigrants and refugees, introduced the bill in January as a federal stopgap measure that would halt Dreamers from being deported even if Trump does indeed end DACA. The law, if passed, would allow Dreamers to work in the U.S, and it would go a step further than the current program by restricting the government from using addresses in the federal system as a way to find people to deport, except in the case of a national security risk according toPolitico. But, unlike three other bills, it does not offer a way for Dreamers to become U.S. citizens, according to the National Immigration Law Center. (Nor, again, does DACA.)
But under the BRIDGE Act, DACA-eligible immigrants would also be able to choose three ways to try and gain protected status so they wouldn’t be deported— either through work, military service, or higher education. They would have to pass a background check and pay a fee to get in the program. If passed, the bill would cover those already in the DACA program until their permit expires, and then they could apply for protection again. Coffman’s BRIDGE Act wouldn’t just apply to those who already have DACA status, but also those who would be eligible for it.
On Aug. 31, as news was bubbling that Trump could end DACA, Coffman let loose with a short tweet storm:
In the U.S. Senate, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham sponsored the BRIDGE Act with Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois.
But Graham and Durbin last month went even further by re-introducing the DREAM Act, which creates a permanent solution for Dreamers to obtain legal residency in the U.S. and offers a way for them to become citizens.
In March, Coffman signed onto another pro-Dreamer bill called the RAC Act, short for Recognizing America’s Children, which also carries plenty of GOP support. He is the only member of Congress from Colorado to do so.
“The measure parallels the Obama Administration goals of allowing residents dubbed ‘DREAMers’ to remain in the United States through the previous, failed, Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act,” The Aurora Sentinel reported in March. Coffman also has said the bill purposefully carried only Republican support and was introduced prior to Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration to “send that signal to the Trump administration” that Republicans don’t support deporting Dreamers.
Who else in the Colorado delegation supports these bills?
Coffman is the only Republican member of Colorado’s federal delegation whose name graces any of the four measures mentioned above.
Representatives for GOP U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton of the Western Slope, Ken Buck of Windsor, and Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs did not reply to emails asking what measures they support in Congress that deal with the impact of DACA. Republican Tipton has in the past called DACA an unconstitutional program. “Instead of acting unilaterally, the president should have worked with Congress to enact real immigration reforms to provide options for children who had no say in being brought to the United States at a young age,” he has said.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Polis, Ed Perlmutter of Arvada and DeGette each support the American Hope Act, which would cover more Dreamers by allowing those brought to the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2016 to qualify, and legal status is not dependent upon fulfilling work, school or military obligations.
Polis and Perlmutter also signed onto a House resolution in June that supports allowing DACA-eligible immigrants to serve in the military so they can become U.S. citizens.
Immigration rights advocates want Congress to pass these laws because they are harder to get rid of than executive orders, which a president can unilaterally tear up.
“We strongly support the bipartisan DREAM Act,” says Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the FWD.us, a national advocacy group that mobilizes the tech community to support comprehensive immigration reform regardless of party.
“We’re also strong supporters of the RAC Act,” Boogaard says. “We support the Bridge Act. It is not as long-term as a solution. It is a temporary bill. We support legislation that would permanently fix this problem.”
Perlmutter spokesman Ashley Verville says to stay tuned after Congress returns from recess in September.
“Depending on what Trump decides to do with the program,” she says, “there could be new legislation introduced in response.”
Why does Coffman support Dreamers?
A Coffman spokesman didn’t respond to an email requesting an interview with the congressman, but Coffman has spoken publicly in recent months about his take on Dreamers.
In March he took questions from constituents on a conference call and mentioned he was working on the Bridge Act.
“There is a special place in my heart for the young people that were taken here by no fault of their own,” Coffman said on the call. He told a story about a young girl who graduated at the top of her class from an Aurora high school and approached his office about getting into the U.S. Naval Academy.
“It turns out that she couldn’t because of her legal status,” Coffman said. “She met all other qualifications, but she was undocumented. And the fact is, her parents took her here when she was 1 year old. I mean, she’s doesn’t know anything about Mexico. This is the only country she has ever known. And so, I think she oughta be able to join the military and have a path to citizenship for her military service.”
Coffman previously supported laws that would allow DACA-eligible immigrants a way to become U.S. citizens through military service, but the Bridge Act goes further, adding higher ed and work as other paths to citizenship.
“If the administration does indeed end DACA or sunset it all eyes will be on Congress to create a permanent solution for these Dreamers,” says Murray of the American Immigration Council. And whether it’s Bridge or whether its Dream or whether it’s another proposal, there’s broad consensus on both sides of the aisle that these Dreamers should find a path to say.”
What about our U.S. senators?
Late last month, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Denver signed on to a letter to Trump urging him to protect the DACA program. As for legislation he supported the BRIDGE Act and co-sponsored the DREAM Acts. He was a member of the so-called Gang of Eight— a bipartisan group of U.S. senators that worked comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.
“Rescinding DACA would be the height of cruelty,” Bennet said in a statement. “Individuals with DACA status came here as children and have often known no other home.” He said DACA allows them to continue their education, pursue careers, and safely put down roots in their communities. Ending that, he said would “separate families and disrupt workplaces and schools all across America.” He said policymakers should “be pursuing comprehensive and humane immigration reform, not needlessly punishing hard-working young people to score political points.”
A spokesman for Republican Cory Gardner of Yuma, who has voted to rescind DACA but voted to spare the program when running for U.S. Senate, did not respond to an email. During his 2014 U.S. senate race, the right of center Denver Post editorial board accused Gardner, whom it endorsed, of running from his voting record— a record the paper said was “filled with votes against immigrant communities” and against Dreamers— “in an attempt to woo Latino voters.”
When Gardner was running for the Senate in 2014 he told a reporter for The Atlantic he supported “some kind of earned status,” but when it came to citizenship, he said, “I don’t know that that is a universal demand by anybody.”
At a recent town hall in Lakewood, when an audience member asked Gardner about DACA bills in Congress, Gardner said he said he wanted to talk about it more with his GOP colleague Lindsey Graham.
Content originally published by the Colorado Independent on August 30, 2017.