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A Betrayal of America’s Soul

For the US – a country of immigrants and their descendants – September 5, 2017, marked a betrayal of the nation’s soul. The announcement by President Donald Trump’s administration that it is ending the so-called DACA program threatens to upend the lives of an entire generation.

NEW YORK – For the United States – a country of immigrants and their descendants – September 5, 2017, marked a betrayal of the nation’s soul. The announcement by President Donald Trump’s administration that it is ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President Barack Obama established by executive order in 2012, threatens to upend the lives of an entire generation.

The DACA program permitted close to 800,000 undocumented young people (known as “Dreamers”), brought into the country as children, to be protected from deportation, so long as they passed a background check and maintained a clean criminal record. What we saw on September 5, of course, is that an initiative begun by executive order can be dismantled through a counter-order by the executive’s successor.

But ending the program creates a real possibility of arrest and deportation for hundreds of thousands of young people who feel themselves to be American through and through – indeed, who overwhelmingly have no memory of living in any other country. They have committed no crime, and are building productive lives in the United States – whether by going to school, working, starting families, establishing businesses, or serving in the armed forces.

The administration announced that it would continue to renew permits for those already in the DACA program for another six months, and then stop. No new applications will be accepted. Only enactment of immigration legislation by the US Congress before the March 5, 2018, deadline – a formidable challenge in view of today’s highly fractured political conditions – can enable Dreamers to stay without fear of being tracked down, rounded up, and expelled.

On occasion, Trump has expressed sympathy for the Dreamers. While vowing during the presidential campaign to end DACA, he also acknowledged the moral case to be made for maintaining it, saying that he would be faced by a “very, very hard” choice. And even after the repeal was announced, he declared that he wanted to “resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion.” Yet, apparently convinced that DACA beneficiaries have taken jobs away from citizens, he concluded that the same heart and compassion were needed “for unemployed, struggling, and forgotten Americans.”

Sadly, in making this choice, the president has opted to turn away from the classic American vision engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, expressed in Emma Lazarus’s poem, which begins, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That credo has benefited tens of millions of newcomers, and it has immeasurably strengthened America.

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The same vision ought to apply to young people who – yes, it is true – were undocumented at the time of arrival, but who came to America through no choice of their own. Instead, they now face the risk of a total disruption of their lives and an uncertain fate.

As a result, Trump positions himself in the dubious company of those throughout American history who displayed malice and suspicion toward new arrivals: the supporters of the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s, which lengthened the period for naturalization to 14 years; the Know Nothings of the pre-Civil War years, who sought to bar Catholics from the country; those in the early twentieth century who claimed that newcomers from eastern and southern Europe, and from China and Japan, could not be made into Americans, and whose arguments led in the 1920s to stringent quotas for immigration from those regions; and those so intent on keeping out Jews seeking to flee Nazi Europe that even the small immigrant quotas for those countries were not filled.

In sum, I am saddened and ashamed. As a Jew, I am all too aware of the Torah’s direction, given no less than 36 times, to “love the stranger.” And, as an American, I feel that we have succumbed – today, at least – to small-minded, short-sighted xenophobia, rather than lived up to the vision of our country at its most welcoming and compassionate best.

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