The fate of 790,000 immigrants rests in the hands of a deeply divided Congress

The Trump Administration announced its decision to end DACA on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. The group marched from the Philadelphia offices of the Justice Department to the Federal Detention Center at 8th and Arch Sts., where they are shown gathered. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The fate of nearly 790,000 young undocumented immigrants is in the hands of a deeply divided Congress.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday morning that the administration would “wind down” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era policy that offers undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children a reprieve from deportation and a chance to work in the country legally.

“DACA deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize,” Sessions said, calling it “an unconstitutional exercise of authority.” Work permits will begin to expire in six months.

In effect, the administration pushed the onus for a solution onto a Republican Congress that has failed to pass any major legislation under this Republican president and now will have another major item on a legislative agenda already buckling under the weight of several must-pass bills.

Getting rid of the program was an old campaign promise, but President Trump had wavered in recent months, at one point telling DACA recipients to “rest easy.” But he had faced intense political pressure to uphold that promise, from his political base and from a cadre of Republican state attorneys general who had threatened to sue if he did not rescind the order by Tuesday. Now, he faces threats of lawsuits from New York and Washington state challenging his plan and a federal lawsuit on behalf of a  DACA recipient in Brooklyn, N.Y., that argues the move is racially motivated and unconstitutional.

On Tuesday night, Trump again waded into the issue, tweeting: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”

The decision was greeted with alarm by hundreds of thousands of young immigrants and their supporters, and by Democrats like U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who called the move “unjust, immoral, and without regard for basic fairness” on Twitter. In Center City, about 150 people, many of them DACA recipients, rallied outside the Department of Justice’s Philadelphia headquarters and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in protest.

Many Republicans signaled their sympathy for DACA recipients while stressing that a fix was Congress’ job, not the president’s: “President Trump’s decision to end this program, while giving Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution, is the right step,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.). It’s a familiar, if hotly debated, argument against DACA.

But what kind of fix Congress might come up with — if it comes up with one  — is anyone’s guess.

“It’s an uphill battle generally when you’re talking about a Republican Congress acting on immigration reform,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University. “And this is a pretty divided Republican Congress that has not been able to do much of anything at all.”

The current version of the DREAM Act — a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children — has two Republican senators as co-sponsors. But various versions of the bill have failed to pass for about 16 years, pushing President Barack Obama to institute DACA in 2012.

A standalone bill likely would not come without a price — with a DACA fix attached to border wall funding, for example, or the Trump-supported RAISE act, which is designed to dramatically reduce legal immigration.

“I fear that it’ll get wrapped up with other pieces of immigration legislation, that DACA students would be a pawn in the fight for funding the border wall,” said Sarah Paoletti, an immigration law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hardliners hope a fix does get wrapped up with other proposals. “If there is accompanying legislation or provisions that mitigate what would essentially be amnesty for a group of individuals, [a DACA bill] has a much stronger chance of passage,” said Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank.

Others are not so sure. The RAISE act is controversial on its own, and Republican support for a border wall is mixed, too, Binder said.

And all this speculation assumes Congress will even get to DACA in the next six months. Raising the debt ceiling, passing a spending bill that will keep the government open, doling out Hurricane Harvey relief, passing a budget, working out the party’s signature policy of tax reform, and stabilizing health insurance markets are all on the docket, said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

By the time DACA is set to expire, many legislators will be looking to 2018, he said. That could mean Republicans try to woo Senate Democrats facing reelection in red or purple states, such as Casey, or it could mean Congress would simply let the program run out.

“The next six months is very, very challenging,” Huder said. “Could I see it ending in stalemate? Absolutely. But it seems a lot of people are interested in doing something, too.”

At a morning rally in Philadelphia, DACA recipients said that after growing up in this country and working hard in school and at jobs, they were not ready to simply step away from active, productive lives. Members of Juntos, the Philadelphia-based immigrant rights group, invited DACA recipients to stop by its South Philadelphia office for solace and support. A contingent of members was traveling to Washington Tuesday night to protest outside the Department of Justice.

DACA recipient Maria Castaneda came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 3 and is now a Swarthmore College senior, interested in a career in law or education.

“Removing DACA is a horrendously immoral action,” she said at Tuesday’s rally. “What Trump is doing now, it’s an act of white supremacy.”

Locally, protesters say they hope to expand Philadelphia’s sanctuary city protections and advocate for immigrants in November’s district attorney race, said Juntos director Erika Almiron. “We have to ensure the Philly DA takes into account the overcriminalization of immigrants,” she said. “Nationally, we’re looking to support the DREAM act bill as is. But we’d reject anything that will include enforcement, expansion of detention, expansion of raids or building a wall.”

Administration officials wrote in a policy memo Tuesday morning that DACA recipients with work permits — which last two years — would be able to keep them until they expire, and that those whose permits expire by March 5, 2018, could renew them if they apply by Oct. 5. Any pending applications or renewals will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. No new applications will be accepted after Tuesday, they said.

According to statistics from the Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had accepted 7,144 DACA applications in Pennsylvania as of March, and about 21,000 people statewide could have been eligible for the program, including 5,000 in Philadelphia and 3,000 in Chester County. In New Jersey, 71,000 people were potentially eligible for DACA, and USCIS has already accepted more than 25,000 applications.

Philadelphia has been at the forefront of the fight on immigration issues this year. Last week, the city filed a lawsuit over Sessions’ attempts to withhold federal funding over Philadelphia’s “sanctuary city” status. Mayor Kenney has called for Trump to uphold DACA. City Council members María Quiñones-Sánchez and Helen Gym slammed the move Tuesday night, and local congressional Democrats were also on the attack. “Heartless and irresponsible,” Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) said. “Against American values,” said Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.).

Republicans stressed the need for comprehensive immigration reform and in some cases severely criticized sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia, but generally signaled support for DACA recipients. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.), long known for his far-right views on immigration, was among the few who did not, and he called the move a victory.

“Young people who came to our nation through no fault of their own should not be punished for the illegal actions of adults,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), expressing a more common sentiment.

Immigrant-rights activists said that the day had been devastating, but that they were prepared for whatever fight lay ahead.

“There were tears today,” Almiron said. “But what was important was that when Jeff Sessions was making his speech, we were in the streets.”