President Donald Trump’s executive action rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program savages 800,000 young immigrant “DREAMers,” and, as one White House aide put it, tosses their futures into Washington’s hostile political gridlock like an “unpinned hand grenade.”
“Prepare for and arrange departure from the United States,” a hardline administration memo advised DACA participants. The president tweeted he would “revisit this issue!” in six months if Congress failed to legislate on DACA, adding to the agonizing confusion DREAMers face from a president whose own officials privately admit he might not have fully grasped the details of what he was about to do.
It may be unfathomable that any substantial body of Americans could callously demand exiling diligent young students and workers brought to the United States as children “back” to countries most of them have never known. But polls indicate Trump’s base is just that mean.
DREAMers may not be able to rely on liberals when the immigration battle heats up.
The damage Trump does to young people—from immigrants to transgender people in the military, through anti-public school and anti-environmental policies that would devastate their futures—he does in service to the Republican base that elected him. That base is championed by nine Republican state attorneys general who have threatened to sue if the administration didn’t end DACA, and a large chunk of the House of Representatives—all making congressional action to extend DACA problematic.
In a particularly appalling misrepresentation, Trump’s statement accused DACA of helping spur a “massive surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America including, in some cases, young people who would become members of violent gangs throughout our country, such as MS-13.”
As usual, Trump provided no evidence. And a Washington Post investigation found that “only a small fraction of these youths are involved in gang violence, and many are victims of it.” But Trump’s demonization of the Central American children and youth who traveled thousands of miles to the United States raises a deeply disturbing issue. Many of them walked here to seek a better future than the murderous violence in their homelands—violence inflicted on their families by largely gangs that serve Americans’ out-of-control demands for hard drugs. Further, there is no documentation to show any came here because of DACA.
The problem isn’t just conservatives. Former President Barack Obama’s administration inexplicably fought to deport thousands of those Central American children rather than offering normal asylum, an indication that DREAMers may not be able to rely on liberals when the immigration battle heats up. Despite the support for DACA voiced by Democrats, business and religious leaders, thousands of activists, and even some prominent Republicans, Americans have proven long on rhetoric but short on action when it comes to ensuring young people’s access to education and opportunity.
Many Americans across the political spectrum seem to resent the young.
The larger problem is that at the nexus of many Americans’ fear and anger is the triple intersection of race, immigration status, and age. Half of Americans under age 25 are nonwhite, double the proportion of those 50 and older. Many Americans across the political spectrum seem to resent the young, and that resentment has been taken out on the biggest institution of egalitarian opportunity for minorities and the poor: public schools.
In 1978, California voters, angered by a state Supreme Court decision mandating equal funding for school districts, slashed their property taxes and wrecked state and local government finances and the finest free public education system in the world in order to prevent mostly Latino and black schools from getting fair access. California’s in-state university tuitions soared 700 percent over and above inflation, and per-pupil school funding fell from near the top to near the bottom.
That set the stage for other states and federal programs to follow suit, and both parties have done little to offset soaring student costs beyond some minor loan reforms during the Obama presidency (since undone by Trump’s Department of Education). Today, student loan debt (at $1.3 trillion) is the largest debt plaguing Americans.
Anti-youth anger is masked behind a relentless, distortion-filled campaign of major media and institutional vilification of the young. Over the last half-century, Americans 45 and older got richer while those under 35 stagnated, the result of direct private compensation and public assistance policies rewarding the old at the expense of the young. Established interests ignore this trend, or tacitly imply younger generations’ bad behaviors are at fault—which is blatantly false. Americans relegate tens of millions of children, youth, and young adults to abject poverty, hundreds of thousands of children and youth to homelessness, and hundreds of thousands more to arrests and repressive policings simply for being young.
From the angry mobs blocking buses of immigrant children to the rhetoric against “anchor babies,” Americans’ extraordinary meanness toward the young, particularly those from disadvantaged groups branded as “undeserving,” has poisoned our politics, contributed to reactionary fears of changing demographics and the future, and spawned politicians who cower before their constituents’ worst impulses.
Trump is only the instrument of a shockingly large, persistent reactionary movement dominated by tens of millions of aging whites willing to sabotage young people and America’s future rather than to accept racial diversity and modernization. It’s hard to imagine better future citizens—whether they’re studying and working under DACA or have traveled thousands of hard miles to get here—than the immigrant youth too often sacrificed to bigotry and paranoia.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.