When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Tuesday that the Trump administration would shut down an Obama-era program that protects young people brought into the U.S. illegally from deportation, he said it was vital for the country to enforce its laws.
"Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers, and prevents human suffering,” Sessions said at the Justice Department as he explained the decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
The program has allowed 800,000 young undocumented people to remain in the country by applying for two-year work permits.
But what drew new scrutiny from advocates for undocumented immigrants was that Sessions cited terrorism specifically as a possible risk if the federal government fails to enforce U.S. immigration laws—and failing to enforce immigration law is what Sessions suggested the government would be doing if the DACA program continued.
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“There is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws," Sessions said during his announcement. “Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence, and even terrorism."
A Justice Department spokesperson told Buzzfeed that the terrorism comments were “not DACA-focused.” But Sessions remarks still raised questions among critics of the administration’s immigration policies—particularly since the DACA program covers young people brought to the U.S. as children, who have little to no criminal record.
“That was right out of the nativist playbook,” Frank Sharry, executive director of immigration reform group America's Voice, told Buzzfeed, calling Sessions comments “a distortion and a lie that is regularly spewed by talk radio.”
Sharry pointed to studying showing that there’s no correlation between immigration and crime, according to Buzzfeed—as well as a recent study reviewing 51 other studies, released by the University of California at Irvine, demonstrating that there’s not a relationship between immigration levels and crime.
As McClatchy reported after the policy change, Sessions went to the White House two weeks ago to tell President Donald Trump that the DACA program was unconstitutional—and that he wouldn’t defend it in court, where it has faced legal challenges.
The Justice Department spokesperson Buzzfeed spoke with suggested that Sessions, in his announcement today, was not trying to say that DACA in particular had anything to do with terrorists.
“There have been many times where people attempted to use or successfully used leniencies within immigration enforcement as a launching pad for their attacks against our country,” the spokesperson told Buzzfeed.
The spokesperson mentioned three terrorists who took part in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. According to the official, three sought "amnesty under the Special Agricultural Workers program, as did a terrorist involved in the 1993 ‘landmarks’ plot. Three of these four who sought amnesty received it."
But immigrant advocates seized on Sessions remarks, according to Buzzfeed—going so far as to suggest they could help in lawsuits against the administration’s immigration policies. Democratic attorneys general from states across the country have already threatened to sue the administration over its DACA reversal, according to The Hill.
For his part, Sessions did use the speech to say that the policy change wasn’t about Dreamers so much as doing what the administration believe is lawful.
“This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way,” Sessions said. “It means we are properly enforcing our laws as Congress has passed them.”