Castillo: DACA decision will define the kind of America we want to be

On immigration policy, President Trump, you can’t have it both ways and all the spaces between.

Trump loves to preen that he is the master dealmaker, but one must wonder how deals ever get made when he vacillates so wildly, as he has about the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants known as Dreamers.

“He talks out of both sides of his mouth,” says Julieta Garibay of Austin, the Texas director and co-founder of the immigrant youth-led network United We Dream.

Trump once seemed morally conflicted about Dreamers and said he had a “great heart” and a “great love” for them. But when the government shut down Jan. 20 over an immigration legislation impasse tying the fate of Dreamers to Trump’s border wall, an angry president seemed to lose that loving feeling. He conflated Dreamers with all undocumented immigrants and stoked nativist fear, feeding a myth that undocumented immigrants are violent criminals.

Not enough whiplash for you? Late last week, Trump said he is open to a path to citizenship for Dreamers after 10 to 12 years, a position starkly at odds with his hard-line stance for illegal immigration crackdowns. Only days earlier, he had rejected a similar bipartisan plan.

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When Senate Democrats blinked last week — and Congress voted to keep the government open through Feb. 8 — they merely kicked the can down the road. The new spending bill, you see, was forged on a Republican pledge to allow a vote on immigration legislation that presumably would include extending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to legally work and live here. Bear in mind, it was the Trump administration that ordered dismantling of DACA last September.

Meanwhile, the DACA clock is ticking, set to expire March 5, exposing Dreamers to deportation. Their lives are pinballing in limbo, hostage to myriad partisan and political footballs.

“They’re counting down the days to when their DACA is going to expire and wondering what the president is going to say today,” Garibay told me. “It’s traumatizing.”

On the morning after the government shutdown and in full blame game mode, Trump tweeted that Democrats were “more concerned with Illegal Immigrants than they are with our great Military or Safety at our dangerous Southern Border.”

Later in the day, his campaign released an outrageous ad accusing Democrats of being complicit in murders committed by undocumented immigrants. The video highlights the case of an undocumented immigrant charged with killing two police officers. “It’s pure evil,” the announcer says ominously.

In conflating Dreamers with all undocumented immigrants, Trump was branding them as lawbreakers when most Americans believe they should not be punished for their parents’ actions. The campaign ad resurrected rhetoric that vilifies the undocumented and appeals to nativists’ basest fears.

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Trump returned to the form that launched his campaign for president: one built on the premise that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists overrunning a porous southern border.

The facts, however, tell a different story. Studies show that immigrants, regardless of legal status, are less apt to commit crimes than people born here and have no effect on crime rates. Studies also conclude that high immigration in the 1990s contributed to a sharp decline in U.S. crime during the decade.

Last February, Trump dragged DACA recipients into his narrative, asserting they included gang members and drug dealers. The truth is that DACA recipients must pass a criminal background check and a severe vetting process.

Claims of a border under siege fall apart under the weight of government data, which show illegal immigration plummeting to about one-tenth the level in 2005 and Border Patrol arrests down.

There’s no getting around it, Congress will have to make a decision about DACA. The president can lead, but he must drop the nativist language that portrays undocumented immigrants as others. His coded messaging is clear: Undocumented immigrants are not like us. They’re evil criminals and they are to be feared.

I asked Garibay what Trump and Americans should know about Dreamers. “That we are their neighbors, that we might be their children’s best friend,” she replied. “That we are human beings who came to this country with parents who were determined to do everything they could to provide a better live for their family.”

A Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. with her parents when she was a child, Garibay was undocumented for 23 years. Now she’s a legal resident with two degrees from the University of Texas.

What Trump and Congress will ultimately decide is whether Dreamers deserve to be equal partners in U.S. life, or whether they will be relegated to a marginal place on the sidelines, or worse, deported to countries they don’t even know because they are American in virtually every respect.

What they decide will define the kind of America we want to be. In setting or resetting that moral compass, we should not stand for political games driving the decision.

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Castillo is the American-Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at jcastillo@

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