United States President Donald Trump’s decision last week to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, programme for undocumented immigrants without a clear legislative solution leaves them unable to enrol in college or university and prompted stern rebukes from US higher education leaders.
Attention then turned swiftly to Capitol Hill, where federal lawmakers have for 16 years grappled, unsuccessfully, with whether and how to provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the United States with their parents illegally and at a young age.
Such children are often called DREAMers, named after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors or DREAM Act, introduced in Congress in 2001. That bill has been re-introduced several times but has never been passed.
Today, about 800,000 young people are enrolled in DACA, which was created via executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012 to allow DREAMers who graduated from a US high school to attend college and legally hold a job in the United States provided they had no criminal record. That order protected DACA recipients from deportation for two years.
With the Trump administration announcement, DACA stopped accepting new applications. It will consider renewal requests received by 5 October 2017 from current beneficiaries whose benefits will expire over the next six months.
Reaction to the decision
In a Facebook post, Obama called the decision “contrary to our spirit and to common sense”, adding: “To target these young people is wrong – because they have done nothing wrong."
National higher education leaders described Trump’s move as “cruel”, “heartless” and “a failure of spirit”.
“The decision to play political football with the lives of 800,000 current DACA holders is a heartless one, directly contrary to the president’s February comment that he would treat DREAMers 'with heart',” said Antonio R Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.
“Turning our backs on these innocent young people is cruel and the antithesis of the values upon which our country was founded,” said Esther Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Trump sought to damp down criticism, noting that existing permits will remain active for up to 24 months. “This is a gradual process, not a sudden phase-out,” he said in a White House statement. “In effect, I am not going to just cut DACA off, but rather provide a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act.”
“I do not favour punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents,” Trump’s statement read. “But we must also recognise that we are a nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”
He also accused Obama of overstepping the bounds of his executive power with the 2012 order.
Several bills are pending in Congress that could provide permanent or temporary protection to DACA recipients. In July, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a new version of the DREAM Act. Another bill, the BRIDGE Act, would extend protections to DACA beneficiaries for a three-year period. But it would not provide a path to permanent residency.
In June, attorneys general from Texas and nine other Republican-led states threatened to sue the Trump administration unless they ended DACA by 5 September, the same day that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced its repeal.
Also last week, attorneys general from 15 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit to stop the administration’s plans, alleging that it demonstrates a bias against Mexicans, who make up more than 78% of DACA recipients.
As examples, the lawsuit points to Trump's pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, his comments during the presidential campaign about Univision anchor Jorge Ramos and an Indiana judge of Mexican heritage who ruled on the class-action lawsuits against Trump University.
The lawsuit notes, among other things, that DACA recipients will “lose their right to enrol in higher education institutions with in-state admissions preferences and tuition”, thus depriving public universities “of a means by which they enrich the experience of all students and faculty through diversity and new perspectives”.
Support for DACA students
University leaders have responded with vows to do what they can to protect DACA students.
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, a small Catholic university for women, has been one of the most vocal higher education critics. On her blog last week, she reassured students that “Trinity stands by you and I am your advocate in every forum, every Congressional office, at the White House and in media.
“I am talking with alumnae about how we can organise a national lobbying effort on your behalf. Your scholarships are secure for as long as you are at Trinity, all the way through graduation. We will come up with plans for support should you lose work permits and licenses. We will have sessions with immigration legal services for you.”
Many other institutions similarly assured students that the administration would not release student records without written consent from the student or a lawfully issued subpoena, warrant or judicial order.
University of California President Janet Napolitano, who was Obama’s secretary of homeland security in 2012 when DACA came into effect, stressed in an open letter that the University of California system “will continue to provide a broad range of support services for undocumented students”, including financial aid, academic counselling and free legal services.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters