WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision expected in the coming weeks on the fate of the young immigrants known as “Dreamers” could cause an election-year headache for President Donald Trump - even if he wins the legal battle.
The Republican president in 2017 sought to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama in 2012, but his move was blocked by lower courts. The program grants deportation relief and work permits - but not a path to citizenship - to 649,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
Trump is seeking re-election on Nov. 3. If the court sides with Trump and allows him to end a program whose enrollment is heavily Hispanic, he could risk further alienating a voting bloc that could play a crucial role in determining the outcome in election battleground states like Arizona and Florida.
The court, whose 5-4 conservative majority includes two justices appointed by Trump, heard arguments in the case in November and is expected to rule by the end of June or early July, but could do so as early as Monday. The conservative justices during the arguments signaled sympathy toward letting Trump terminate DACA.
If the court rules against him, Trump will have failed to live up to his 2016 campaign promise to end DACA, which he called one of Obama’s “illegal executive amnesties.”
If the court sides with him, Trump could have several options on how to proceed, including ending DACA immediately or phasing it out over a period of time, potentially starting after the election.
Trump also could try to make a deal with congressional Democrats to provide legal status to some Dreamers in exchange for changes that he would want to the U.S. immigration system. That would seem unlikely given his poisonous relationship with congressional Democrats dating to before and after they tried to remove him from office though impeachment.
Democrats control the House of Representatives and Republicans control the Senate. Previous talks between Trump and Democrats on DACA led nowhere.
Trump has appealed to his conservative political base with his crackdown on legal and illegal immigration and his work toward a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. But opinion polls show strong support among Americans for DACA. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee to face Trump in November, served as Obama’s vice president when DACA was created and backs DACA.
Seventy percent of Americans support DACA, according to a November 2019 survey conducted by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a consortium of more than three dozen universities. The survey also found backing among 75% of people who voted for Trump in 2016 but are undecided in 2020.
‘A UNIFYING ISSUE’
The Biden campaign said dismantling DACA would backfire on Trump.
“Immigration is a unifying issue for Latinos,” Biden campaign senior adviser Cristóbal Alex said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Puerto Rican, if you’re born a citizen, you understand that attacks on Latinos based on immigration (are) really an attack on all Latinos.”
Any decision to end DACA could motivate Hispanic voters in pivotal states, said Stephen Nuño-Perez, director of communications for the Seattle-based political opinion firm Latino Decisions.
The firm’s polling shows immigrant rights ranking among the top issues for Hispanic voters, just behind the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare and economic matters.
Action by Trump to end DACA also could help convince undecided moderate, college-educated swing voters to choose Biden, even if they agree with Trump’s economic message, according to Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch of the New York City-based Global Strategy Group.
“Generally speaking, voters are pretty sympathetic to Dreamers,” Gourevitch said, noting that about 27,000 DACA enrollees are working in healthcare jobs during the pandemic. “The president likes to pick a lot of immigration fights, but I think the DACA immigration fight is a bad one for him to be having.”
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the president can differentiate himself from Biden on immigration. Biden, for example, supports allowing illegal immigrants to obtain medical insurance through the Obamacare law and he has vowed to pause deportations for 100 days after taking office.
Murtaugh referred questions about DACA to the White House, which did not respond.
Republican election consultants do not see Trump’s move to terminate DACA as a major liability.
“I think the downside for him is probably fairly manageable,” Texas-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said. “I don’t see DACA as an issue that affects Hispanics. DACA is an issue that affects DACA recipients.”
Reporting by Ted Hesson; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Ross Colvin and Will Dunham
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