The writer was secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015 and a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009.
A good leader wields power effectively, not only by understanding when to act, but when not to. Making decisions among a range of options — properly calibrating exactly what the moment demands and what will further your ultimate objectives — requires skilled judgment and strong character. President Donald Trump has once again been presented with a high-stakes test of his leadership and he has the opportunity to do the right thing.
Last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision vacating President Trump’s September 2017 decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which today allows nearly 650,000 young immigrants who came to the country as children more than 13 years ago to live and work in the country they call home. At the same time, however, the court recognized that the administration retains the authority to end these protections if it does so in a more deliberate and carefully considered fashion. So it falls upon the administration — and ultimately on President Trump — to decide whether and how to use that power. The decision is of great consequence not only to the young men and women who rely upon DACA but also to the nation as a whole, including to our national security and America’s standing in the world.
The Department of Homeland Security created DACA in 2012 as an exercise of prosecutorial discretion and to focus limited enforcement resources on higher priority individuals. To qualify for temporary protection from deportation and the ability to work lawfully, applicants must have entered the country prior to age 16, have resided here since 2007, be in school or have graduated, and pose no threat to public safety. “Dreamers” who went through this rigorous application process in 2012 have by this point likely been vetted on five separate occasions and have paid well over $2,000. To call the process rigorous is an understatement.
By all measures the program also has been a resounding success. One area that stands out for me as a former secretary of defense is the willingness of these young people to step up and serve this country. At the time that President Trump first took steps to end the program in September 2017, nearly 1,000 Dreamers were serving in the United States military. All of them had skills and training, including proficiency in languages deemed to be of strategic importance, that made their enlistment vital to the national interest according to the judgment of the Pentagon. And over the past several months as the nation has faced the continuing threat of a pandemic — a national security threat like none we have seen in decades — nearly one in three DACA recipients is working in a front-line job that the Department of Homeland Security itself classifies as essential to the critical infrastructure of the nation.
It was because I observed that love of country in these young people that I became an original cosponsor of the DREAM Act during my time in the U.S. Senate and supported efforts to pass that legislation in 2007 as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act. It is time to end the continuous attacks on these young people and their families, more than 250,000 of whom are U.S. citizen children. Many DACA recipients know no country other than our own, and deporting them to a place that is unsafe and unfamiliar to them would put them at great risk. Moreover, ending DACA would force DHS to direct precious resources away from real threats that homeland security and law enforcement should be prioritizing. It is counterproductive and contrary to our national interest for DHS to deport law-abiding, productive and talented young people at a cost of $7.5 billion to American taxpayers.
Even as it has forced us to push each other away, the fight against the coronavirus has bonded us together. We will need that sense of community to rebuild the country in the months and years ahead, and to answer the calls heard around the country in recent weeks for fairness and equity — for treating one another as human beings, first and foremost.
The Supreme Court gave the president a chance to lead. For years, he has recognized that it would make no sense to deport these high-achieving young people who embody the American dream itself. In this he is joined by the large majority of Americans — 85 % in a recent survey, including nearly all Democrats, 84 % of Independents and nearly 75 % of Republicans.
Today, the president should announce that he will not resume efforts to end DACA and will instead direct immigration officials to begin accepting and processing new applications to the program. Moreover, Congress should finish the work that so many of us began well over a decade ago and pass legislation that provides these young people with a path to citizenship; the House of Representatives last year passed on a bipartisan basis H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act, which would do just that.
DACA reflects America at its best — the image of America that has long made us the envy of the world. We can’t give up on that America — and the Supreme Court has given the Trump administration an opportunity to make sure we don’t.