WASHINGTON — It was supposed to be a make-or-break moment.
When the Trump administration said last September it was pulling the plug on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, March 5 was the program’s official end date.
But it was so much more than a date on the calendar. It was the looming deadline that finally was going to force Congress to tackle the perennial political hot potato of immigration.
Protesters organized around it. Lawmakers invoked it in fiery speeches. The President warned that time was running out to make a deal.
Now, here we are on that fateful date with no solution in sight. And what about the deadline? Well, it still exists on paper. But it’s become more of a symbolic marker than a moment when anything major is expected to happen for the roughly 700,000 DACA recipients.
Here’s a look at how we got here, and what happens next:
How did this happen?
The Obama-era program protected undocumented immigrants who were illegally brought to the United States as children. Those who passed background checks and paid fees got two-year permits allowing them to live and work legally in the United States.
People on both sides of the issue have been trading blame for weeks over why Congress and the President have failed to find middle ground on immigration and pass a new measure to extend protections for DACA recipients.
There’s plenty of room for debate about that. But no matter where you stand, it’s clear a series of recent court decisions changed the conversation.
In two separate district court rulings, federal judges ordered the administration to keep accepting DACA renewal applications while the courts weigh legal challenges over how the administration went about ending the program.
That took the teeth — at least temporarily — out of the administration’s efforts to end DACA. It also gave Congress a way to punt this issue down the road.
So does this mean DACA recipients have nothing to worry about?
That’s a question immigrant rights advocates answer with a resounding, “No.”
They’ve been campaigning hard online and in the streets to make the case that things are still dire.
Even though DACA recipients can still renew their protections, advocates say many could find themselves in limbo. Inevitably, they argue, some recipients’ renewal applications won’t be processed before their current work permits and other protections expire.
How exactly that will play out in communities across the country is anyone’s guess. But at a time when immigration authorities have repeatedly said no one is exempt from enforcement, fear is running high.
Still, some leaders have been offering reassurances. Defense Secretary James Mattis has said the hundreds of DACA recipients in the military have nothing to fear. And other administration officials have suggested that deporting any DACA recipients who’ve lost their protections wouldn’t be a priority.
Activists say time is running out for officials to come up with a permanent solution. They’re planning a protest in Washington Monday to make their voices heard. The courts have offered a temporary reprieve for DACA recipients, they say, but there’s no telling how long that will last.
I thought Congress was going to fix this.
So did a lot of people.
But the much heralded Senate immigration debate last month ended up lasting less than an afternoon.
Plenty of lawmakers said they wanted to make a deal.
As a bipartisan Senate compromise picked up steam, the White House vowed to veto it, saying it would compound problems rather than fix them.
In the end, none of the proposals on the table garnered enough support to pass.
What does President Trump have to say about all this?
It’s difficult to pin down where the President stands on DACA.
His administration ended the program, calling it unconstitutional. Lately, Trump has pinned blame for DACA’s demise on Democrats.
At times, he’s taken a softer stance, promising to address the matter “with heart.”
The immigration proposal he pitched during his State of the Union address included what Trump described as a path to citizenship for current DACA recipients and more than 1 million other undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
That drew sharp criticism from some immigration hardliners who’d supported him. Some posted on Twitter that they were burning their “Make America Great Again” hats.
Who will decide DACA recipients’ fates?
There are a number of pending federal court cases dealing with DACA. A common thread tying them together: claims that the Trump administration didn’t follow proper procedures and violated recipients’ constitutional right to due process.
Final rulings in these cases are a ways off, and even then, appeals are expected. Judges weighing the cases have temporarily ruled that the Trump administration has to keep accepting DACA renewals, and that officials can’t revoke DACA protections in individual cases without giving notice, an explanation and an opportunity to respond.
The Trump administration has slammed federal courts — particularly in California, where at least two of the DACA rulings have occurred — arguing that activist judges are overreaching.
Given how difficult it’s been for Congress and the President to make a deal, when it comes to DACA — for now, at least — it looks like judges and justices will cast the deciding votes.