President Donald Trump often bristles at the constraints imposed on him by his aides, yet when it comes to Obama-era protections for young undocumented immigrants, he is at war with himself.
The president has waffled between his campaign pledge to kill the policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and his sympathy for the nearly 800,000 people whose lives could be upended if it’s repealed, aides say.
As an unofficial Sept. 5 deadline looms, there are growing signs that Trump will decide to phase out the program. But administration officials say he remains conflicted, trying to find a middle ground that balances his instinct to be tough on immigration and his personal feelings.
Trump’s final decision could drastically change the lives of the country’s Dreamers. Participants in the program — which permits some people who were brought to the United States as children to live and work in the country temporarily — worry they could lose their jobs or be subject to possible deportation if the program is suddenly ended.
DACA critics say Trump’s sympathy for Dreamers shouldn’t sway his decision.
“Having sympathy for people who were brought here as children is not at all inconsistent with the acknowledgment that the DACA program is just absurdly unconstitutional. Those two things are not contradictory,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors lower levels of immigration.
But people close to the president say they still don’t know where he’ll ultimately end up, noting that Trump is often unpredictable. “I would be very uncomfortable saying where the president is leaning,” a senior White House aide said. “I don’t have a clear sense of where he’ll go.” Another top aide said Trump seems to view DACA recipients as a “sympathetic or unusual case.”
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment, saying “the program is still under review by the administration.”
Trump has said empathy has guided his policy decisions in the past. He cited images of gassed Syrian children in justifying his changed attitude toward Bashar Assad when he decided to launch airstrikes there. But if he does not end the Obama-era DACA program, he could face heavy backlash from conservatives who considered his immigration promises the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign.
Many people close to the president believe he will ultimately decide to upend the policy, in part because he believes it will face an uphill battle in court, an argument emphasized by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and lawyers in the White House counsel’s office.
Texas and nine other states have called on the Trump administration to rescind DACA by next Tuesday or face legal action. Supporters and opponents of DACA alike believe a legal challenge could succeed, particularly if it’s overseen by the same federal judge who blocked a broader Obama-era immigration program in 2015.
Trump’s staff has been meeting privately for months to discuss the policy options available to the president. One possible approach: Stop renewing work permits granted through DACA, possibly sometime later this year, but allow people who already have them to stay until their two-year permits expire, people briefed on the issue said. Another possibility would be to simply block new people from enrolling in the program.
The president’s top aides are divided on DACA. While White House chief of staff John Kelly supports the program, policy adviser Stephen Miller and his deputies on the Domestic Policy Council are pushing the president to get rid of it.
“It’s kind of like Afghanistan, where you have a lot of different voices and the president needs to make a decision,” one person close to the administration said.
Trump himself has seesawed on the subject. As far back as his campaign announcement in June 2015, Trump said that, if elected, he would “immediately terminate President Obama’s illegal executive order on immigration.” The immigration plan he released several months later also included a pledge to repeal the “executive amnesties” signed into law by Obama, including DACA.
But as president, after a draft executive order to repeal the measure leaked in January, Trump told ABC News that he was approaching the issue “with great heart.” He has not signed that order.
In a news conference the following month, he said, “The DACA situation is a very difficult thing for me, as I love these kids, I love kids. I have kids and grandkids, and I find it very, very hard doing what the law says exactly to do and, you know, the law is rough.”
Trump is under pressure from many conservatives who consider his campaign trail promises to do away with DACA and crack down on immigration the animating issue of his campaign. “The president owes it to his voters and, much more important, to the constitutional system, to end DACA,” National Review’s editorial board wrote on Monday.
While many of Trump’s aides agree, Kelly has long supported DACA. Still, he toldDemocrats in July that he didn’t expect it to survive a court challenge. He urged lawmakers to rewrite immigration laws so that Dreamers are not merely protected by executive order. “If you don’t like the law we are enforcing, and I don’t like many of them, please, please, please change the law,” Kelly said at the time.
Trump doesn’t have to make a decision by Tuesday, the deadline given by the states threatening to sue. Doing nothing would ensure that the program’s legality is tested in court, and the president could opt not to mount a legal defense. But administration officials said they expect Trump to outline his intentions by that date.
Another option that has long been discussed: Trying to strike a deal with Congress that would maintain DACA in exchange for funding for Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. But congressional aides cast doubt on the viability of that plan, noting that Democrats are unlikely to support it.
Still, some Republicans are holding out hope that Democrats could be willing to make a deal if Trump announces that he’ll stop renewing work permits through the program later this year, a move that would put pressure on supporters of the program to act.