As Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration approached on Friday, rumors buzzed among immigrant rights activists that he’d ax the popular Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program ― perhaps as early as that afternoon.
The 2012 program, known by its acronym DACA, shields more than 740,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation, and allows them to work legally for a two-year, renewable period. Trump had promised on the campaign trail to do away with it.
Friday came and went without DACA news. On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer twice dodged questions about whether Trump would rescind DACA, telling reporters the administration would focus deportation efforts on people with criminal records. Spicer dealt reporters a similarly vague line on Tuesday, saying: “With respect to DACA, [Trump] wants to organize the team and move forward with respect to that issue and that’s where we are right now.”
Spicer’s words suggest to many observers that the new administration is backing away from Trump’s campaign pledge. But the vague language leaves many young undocumented immigrants who benefit from the program unnerved.
“We’ve been on a psychological roller coaster over the last few days,” Antonio Alarcón, a youth organizer with the advocacy group Make the Road New York. “We know that Donald Trump can say something one day, then in two hours he can say something else. We’re still in that moment of anxiety, just like we’ve been over the last year. But we know we’re going to keep fighting for ourselves and for our parents.”
Juan Escalante, a digital campaign manager for the immigrant rights group America’s Voice, described a similar sense of dreadful anticipation. Without concrete details, his ability to work in the United States and to live without fear of deportation to his birth country of Venezuela are up in the air.
“People are being subjected to this pseudo-psychological warfare, where every day people are going into work ― they’re checking their email to see if Donald Trump signed something,” Escalante told HuffPost. “Until specifics come out, everybody should not take anything that the administration is saying ― or not saying ― and speculate about it. It would be disingenuous.”
University of Houston law student Karla Pérez said she hears news reports saying that Trump is softening on immigration. But then she sees him bring people like Julie Kirchner into his administration. Tapped to serve as chief of staff for Customs and Border Protection, Kirchner is a former executive director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a hard-line group advocating immigration restrictions. The group opposes DACA.
“I’ve personally felt a lot of anxiety,” Pérez, an organizer with the immigrant-youth group United We Dream, told HuffPost. “When I applied for DACA, I knew that it wasn’t a permanent fix and that an executive action could be rescinded by the next president. You always have it in the back of your mind. … What I know is that the Trump campaign ran on an extremely anti-immigrant platform. That was his campaign.”
Trump’s hesitation to act on DACA likely stems from the administration’s growing awareness that nixing the program would put the new president on a path that would quickly burn political capital, according to Randy Capps, a research director with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
DACA is backed by the business community, Capps pointed out. University presidents ― including former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who heads the University of California system ― have urged the administration to retain it. And a bipartisan bill in Congress called the Bridge Act would preserve protections first offered under Obama.
“There is a growing political awareness that this is a group that should continue to receive the protections that it’s had in the Obama administration,” Capps told HuffPost. “Basically, this program is a winner.”
For the moment, however, many DACA recipients are worried. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is still taking applications for the program. But United We Dream and Make the Road both warn first-time DACA applicants to wait and see what approach Trump takes before applying.
“Now, more than ever, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the immigrant rights movement,” Alarcón said. “We don’t want to put people at risk.”