When President Donald Trump told the Associated Press Friday that illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children should “rest easy,” he took yet another step back from the hard-line immigration stance he offered on the campaign trail. More importantly, he gave up a potentially powerful piece of negotiating leverage.
Trump reassured the AP that his administration is “not after the dreamers, we are after the criminals,” adding, “that is our policy.” The president said, dreamers should “rest easy,” indicating he will not reverse President Barack Obama’s executive amnesty, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. (The DREAM Act stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors.)
“We will work with them. They have to go … we either have a country or we don’t have a country. Either we have a country or not.”
The president’s suggestion that DACA is not being considered for elimination came as the media and many liberals continued to spout outrage over the deportation of 23-year-old dreamer Juan Manuel Montes. Trump said the circumstances in Montes’ case were “a little different” from a traditional DACA, but declined to elaborate further. Montes filed a lawsuit Tuesday, although the Department of Homeland Security insists that Montes violated the terms of DACA by leaving the U.S. on his own prior to returning.
The admission that DACA is to remain in place, at least for now, conflicts dramatically with direct campaign promises Trump made during the 2016 election.
“It was front and center in his campaign,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told Politico about DACA several days into Trump’s presidency.
“Donald Trump got a lot of votes — probably got the Republican nomination in large part — because he said he was going to be aggressive in defending our borders,” Brooks continued. “One of the low-lying fruits is repealing, by executive order, the amnesty executive orders of Barack Obama, and he hasn’t done it yet.”
When Trump announced his presidential bid on June 16, 2015, he made waves by declaring that he would “immediately terminate President Obama’s illegal executive order on immigration” upon assuming the presidential mantle.
Just a few months later, on August 16, 2015, Trump gave an interview with NBC News’ “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd in which they touched on Trump’s hardline DACA stance and deportation. When Todd asked Trump if he would really “rescind the DREAM Act executive order, DACA,” Trump responded, “We have to.”
“We have to make a whole new set of standards,” Trump insisted.
When Todd pressed him about deporting children and splitting up families, Trump unequivocally said, “We’re going to keep the families together. We have to keep the families together … But they have to go.”
“We will work with them. They have to go,” Trump continued. “Chuck, we either have a country or we don’t have a country. Either we have a country or not … We will do it and we will expedite it so people can come back in.
“It will work out so well, you will be so happy, in four years you’re going to be interviewing me and you’re going to say, what a great job you’ve done, President Trump,” he concluded.
Over a year later on August 31, 2016, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to eliminating Obama’s executive orders on immigration, DACA, and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). DAPA remains blocked by a federal court in Texas.
“We will immediately terminate President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties, in which he defied federal law and the constitution to give amnesty to approximately 5 million illegal immigrants,” Trump said.
Trump’s interview Friday with the AP capped what has been a steady softening since the campaign on the issue of DACA.
Trump’s interview for Time Magazine as its “Person of the Year” on Dec. 8, 2016, showed him expressing more sympathy for the plight of dreamers when he said, “We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud. They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Just two days prior to his inauguration, Trump told “Fox & Friends” that he was approaching the situation with “a lot of heart.”
“It’s a plan that’s going to be very firm, but it’s going to be a lot of heart. And we’re going to be looking into that situation,” Trump said. “That’s a very tough situation, but I think they’re going to end up being very happy. We’re going to have great people coming into our country, people that love our country.”
During a press conference as president on February 16, Trump admitted that "DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me."
"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. It's rough, very, very rough," Trump conceded.
And just prior to his first speech to a Joint Session of Congress on February 28, Trump responded to a question from George Stephanopoulos and indicated that he was open to giving dreamers a path to citizenship.
During one of White House press secretary Sean Spicer's early press briefings, he admitted that Trump's deportation "priority is, first and foremost, people who pose a threat to people in our country, to criminals, frankly."
"I think he's continuing to make sure his Cabinet-level team starts to organize and create a plan to move forward with respect to that issue, and that's where we are right now," Spicer added concerning the fate of DACA.
The reversal on such a specific campaign pledge risks alienating immigration hard-liners who enthusiastically backed Trump's campaign, but it also surrenders a potentially valuable bargaining chip. Abandoning the elimination of DACA could have been traded in exchange for more moderate Republican support on Capitol Hill for border security measures, such as funding for a wall, or tough immigration measures such as crackdowns on sanctuary cities.
"This was one promise I thought he would keep," Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, had told Politico in January. "There was no wiggle room."