How Trump can stay tough on immigration and protect DREAMers, too

Did Trump deliver on day one promises?
Did Trump deliver on day one promises?

Since Donald Trump won the election, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children have grown fearful that he would follow through on his vow to repeal an executive order that protects them from being deported.

Put in place by President Obama, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has helped roughly 750,000 young people -- known as the DREAMers -- come out from the shadows and obtain valid driver's licenses, enroll in college and legally secure jobs. Overturning DACA would make them vulnerable to deportation.

Yet, amid all the tough talk about immigration, Trump has said it is not his intention to deport all of the people who sought protection under DACA. Instead, the administration says it will initially focus its efforts on immigrants with criminal records.

"First and foremost, the President's been very, very clear that we need to direct agencies to focus on those who are in this country illegally and have a record, a criminal record or pose a threat to the American people. That's where the priority is going to be," said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Monday.

Spicer did not provide any further specifics on the administration's plans, saying only that the administration would wait for Congress to act. "Give us a little bit of time, we 'll see what Congress moves forward with," he said.

Related: Trump immigration plan could cost the U.S. billions

Last week, Trump told Fox & Friends that his plan would be ready in a few months. "It's a plan that's going to be very firm, but it's going to have a lot of heart," Trump said. Trump also acknowledged this process was "a very tough situation" for people who sought protection under DACA. But, he said, "I think they're going to end up being very happy."

One option that may allow Trump to overturn DACA and still provide DREAMers with protection from deportation is the BRIDGE Act, said Roger Rocha the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a Hispanic civil rights group. LULAC is one of the only Latino groups to work with Trump's advisers on immigration policy and, according to Rocha, most recently met with Trump's strategic advisory committee last week.

The bipartisan BRIDGE Act has been re-introduced by senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin. It calls for the temporary protection of DREAMers from deportation. Those who would be protected must meet criteria that is similar to those established under DACA, including that they must have arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday and have lived continuously within the country since June 15, 2007.

Applicants also must not have been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor -- such as domestic violence or burglary or any offense which involves a sentence of more than 90 days in prison -- or three or more misdemeanors.

Related: DREAMer - 'We've invested in this community'

"It's my firm belief most Americans want to fix a broken immigration system in a humane manner," Graham said in a press release. "In my view, the DACA Executive Order issued by President Obama was unconstitutional and President-elect Trump would be right to repeal it. However, I do not believe we should pull the rug out and push these young men and women -- who came out of the shadows and registered with the federal government -- back into the darkness."

The BRIDGE Act does not provide a path to citizenship and protected status would end three years after the law is passed. According to Shiu Ming Cheer, a senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, they would not be allowed to renew unless the law was amended.

daca immigration
Supporters of President Obama's executive orders providing protections for undocumented immigrants stand in front of the Supreme Court in 2016.

Still, the BRIDGE Act would provide DREAMers more protection than DACA, said Cheer, since an executive order can be repealed at any time by the President without Congressional approval. A law, on the other hand, would need Congressional approval to be repealed or amended.

But Leon Fresco, who headed the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Immigration under President Obama, said the BRIDGE Act is unlikely to get a Republican majority behind it in order to get passed.

A more likely scenario, he said, is that the Trump administration will simply repeal DACA and stress that going after DREAMers isn't a priority. Instead, he believes they will focus on those with criminal records. He estimated that more than 1,000 DREAMers have misdemeanors or pending removal orders and are at risk of getting swept up in raids.

Related: Undocumented entrepreneur faces uncertain fate

Fresco said he would push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which would strengthen immigration enforcement, streamline visa requirements and provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. This legislation was most recently proposed and passed in the Senate in 2013, but was blocked by the House.

"Republicans always said they wouldn't go for it because they didn't trust that Obama would enforce the law. Now we have a president they can trust will enforce the law, so get in there and do it," said Fresco. "There shouldn't be a barrier anymore. However, if the barrier is really that they just don't want to give legal status to undocumented people, then that's that. The cards are on the table."

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