Mark Krikorian is displeased.
Krikorian is one of the most influential advocates of stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. He’s spent his career pushing for tougher border enforcement and lower levels of legal immigration, and he heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a small but productive think tank that researches the issue. Long before Donald Trump took his fateful ride down that gleaming escalator, Krikorian was gunning for the kind of policies he campaigned on.
And now, Trump has let him down. That’s because as the sun set on Trump’s first full weekday in office, it became clear that the reality star turned president had broken a key campaign promise: He had failed to reverse an Obama policy that protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Instead, two of Trump’s top lieutenants signaled that the promise may never come to fruition.
This all started on Aug. 16, 2015, when Trump released the first major policy paper of his presidential campaign: on immigration. In that plan, which is still up on his campaign website, Trump promised to “immediately terminate President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties.”
The Supreme Court took care of one of them, which would have shielded from deportation undocumented parents of children born in the United States. But the other Obama executive action Trump’s plan referred to—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA—has thus far withstood legal scrutiny. It’s a program that provides temporary work permits and deportation protection for people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, haven’t committed any crimes, and have jobs or are in school. Upward of 750,000 undocumented immigrants are enrolled in the program.
Obama implemented DACA without getting a congressional sign-off, generating sharp criticism from Republicans, who said he was violating the Constitution and undermining the checks and balances that rein in executive power (Democrats were much less worried about executive overreach when a member of their party was in the White House). Conservative grassroots activists also detested DACA, which many argued would encourage illegal immigration. And debates over how fast to repeal it were a major part of the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
Trump’s promise to end it “immediately” won him plaudits from some of the hardest hardliners in conservative immigration circles.
Then Inauguration Day came. And nothing happened. The president signed orders to change the leadership of the Federal Communications Commission and to keep the Federal Housing Administration from lowering interest rates. But he didn’t do anything about Obama’s much-decried “executive amnesty.”
And then over the weekend he didn’t do anything.
And by end of day on Monday, Jan. 23—Day Three and a Half of Trump’s America—DACA was still intact. Krikorian told The Daily Beast that he contacted the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services himself to see if perhaps the Trump White House had quietly told officials to stop enrolling immigrants in the program—and they told him, no, they were still accepting applications.
USCIS confirmed to Politico that it was still issuing new work permits to undocumented immigrants who applied for them, and that it was still renewing existing permits as they expired. It was business as usual, and the Trump White House hadn’t told USCIS otherwise.
“This is a broken promise,” Krikorian said. “It ain’t immediate anymore.”
Krikorian added that he had known Trump would disappoint him, as any elected official would. But this was more than he had expected.
“This is a threshold issue—there’s no excuse for allowing a single work permit to be renewed, and yet they’re doing it anyway, on the same scale and in the same way that Obama was doing it,” he said. “They’re just continuing Obama’s illegal policy.”
On Fox News on Sunday and in the White House press briefing room on Monday, respectively, Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer proceeded to salt the wound. Priebus suggested the Trump administration had no immediate plans to end the program and instead would work with Congress to find a permanent way to give its participants legal status. And during the first press briefing of the Trump administration, Spicer dipped and dodged when questioned about the program.
“For now, the focus is on people who’ve done harm to our country,” he said.
Krikorian said he thinks those statements mean Priebus has more influence over how Trump thinks about immigration policy—at least for now—than senior counselor Steve Bannon does. Bannon’s old news site, Breitbart, exhaustively covered the implementation of DACA, and in an overwhelmingly negative way. One of the site’s key dogmas is that undocumented immigrants are an existential threat to the U.S. and that candidates who cater to them are traitors to American nationalism.
So immigration restrictionists, like Krikorian, saw Bannon as their voice in the White House. Bannon was the true believer who would counterbalance the influence of Priebus—whom they viewed as an partisan operative, the guy who argued in 2013 the GOP would have to back some sort of legal status for undocumented immigrants if it wanted to win in 2016 (whoops).
“I don’t know what’s going on inside,” Krikorian said. “But it sounds to me like Priebus winning out over Bannon. This is a pretty significant loss for the Bannon faction.”
Bannon didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Dan Stein, another advocate of stricter immigration enforcement, told The Daily Beast he thinks Trump is keeping DACA in place as leverage to negotiate for tougher immigration legislation in the future.
“What’s troubling is when an old tool guy like Reince Priebus goes out on Fox News and he appears to be doing something that Obama was legendary for, which was foreshadowing in a way that undermined leverage,” Stein said. “By foreshadowing that they might not be moving aggressively on DACA, they wind up potentially undermining leverage.”
“You have to be very clear and firm about where you’re trying to go,” he added. “And it’s not clear why these guys have to be riffing on TV all the time.”
Immigration restrictionists aren’t the only ones frustrated with Trump’s newfound wishy-washiness on DACA. Juan Escalante, digital campaigns manager for the pro-comprehensive reform group America’s Voice, is an undocumented immigrant and participant in the program. He told The Daily Beast that the he and other DACA recipients are dealing with enormous anxiety, checking news reports and Twitter updates every hour to see if Trump has eliminated the program that lets them keep their jobs and driver’s licenses.
“By Donald Trump and his administration not giving a clear indication as to what the future of this program will be, he is creating a very damaging level of uncertainty that puts people under extreme anxiety and stress about their futures in this country,” Escalante said.
“Every single day from now onward, people are getting these permits renewed,” he added. “And they have to look at them wondering if tomorrow they may be taken away from them.”