Democratic lawmakers, immigration activists and Obama administration officials are demanding that personal information that more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants provided to the U.S. government when they applied for a special program that spared them from deportation not be used against them in the future.
Supporters of the immigrants, who are part of a program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, say the Obama administration succeeded in persuading those who applied for it to come out of the shadows by reassuring them that doing so would not backfire and get them deported.
They plan to call for a hands-off approach to DACA recipients – who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors – at a rally in Washington D.C., as well as about a dozen cities nationwide – on Jan. 14. Some Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, of Illinois, plan to speak at the rally.
“There are two competing philosophies here,” Gutierrez, one of the most vocal supporters of undocumented immigrants in Congress, said to FoxNews.com in a statement. “One that says the immigrants are here and will probably be here for the rest of their lives, so we want them to be on the books, working with permission.”
“The other philosophy is to make people scared to come forward even when they are complying with the law,” he said. “It could have a chilling effect in the future, so there should be a firewall between information submitted for one situation being used in a completely different context.”
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson joined the fray by insisting that the data the DACA recipients provided when they applied for the program, which President Barack Obama established in 2012 through an executive order, not be used for immigration enforcement.
Johnson’s warning came as Reuters reported that the Trump transition team sought information from the Homeland Security Department about Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Reuters noted that Trump has made specific reference to DACA as one of several executive orders he plans to eliminate.
Proponents of stricter immigration enforcement say that Obama never should have issued the executive order giving what they view as amnesty to a mass group of people. And so, they argue, demands that the information not be used to enforce immigration laws are preposterous.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who favors a hard line on immigration and has been a long-time member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, wants the Trump administration to get rid of DACA, and views it absurd for federal agents not to be able to use information at their disposal to enforce the law.
“DACA is flat-out unconstitutional,” King said to FoxNews.com “You can’t have a president announce that a huge class of people are exempt from the application of the law.”
Immigrants here legally who were brought to the country as children have been at the center of some of the most emotional debates about illegal immigration.
Their supporters say they are here illegally through no fault of their own, and that they should not be punished for decisions that their parents made. Some Republicans, including those who favor strict immigration laws, say they sympathize with that argument.
“Secretary Johnson’s commitment to protecting [young immigrants] from deportation is admirable, as is the work done by DHS and this administration to protect and support immigrants,” said Rep. Judy Chu in a statement. “However...our concerns are with the actions of the incoming president who has expressly run against norms and precedent.”
Chu and several other Democrats want Obama to issue an executive order precluding the use of the DACA recipients’ information for deportation matters.
“Without such a legal assurance,” she said, “immigrants who believed our promise of security are left to the devices of President-elect Trump who has repeatedly promised to be a deporter-in-chief.”
Trump has at times expressed sympathy for immigrants brought here as children, indicating there should be some humane way to address their situation.
Some Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, has said that the least politically explosive way to do away with DACA may be to phase it out, with the hope that Congress can develop more permanent solutions to fixing the immigration system through legislation.
But others say that to give these immigrants a break amounts to rewarding their parents’ violation of U.S. laws, and sends the wrong message. In some cases, immigrants who have come forward to apply for legal status – such as through political asylum -- or another benefit have been subjected to deportation if their petition is declined or expires.
In other cases, certain U.S. agencies, such as those that collect complaints about wage and hour violations, and the Census Bureau, do not share information provided by undocumented immigrants with immigration authorities. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would purge information about undocumented immigrants from government databases it were to be used for enforcement, but some experts have said such a move would be illegal.
“Everything I do on the issue of immigration comes back to restoring the rule of law,” King said, adding that he thinks that DACA recipients and others who came illegally as minors should be subject to deportation.
“It’s egregiously offensive to the integrity of the American people to give them a path that they legally didn’t have a right to have,” King said.
Many DACA recipients, who had to meet strict criteria to qualify for the program, say they are worried they will be penalized for heeding the Obama administration’s call to come forward.
They say they feel a greater bond to the United States than to their parents’ homeland, one that many don’t remember
“I’ve been in the United States so long, everything big that has happened to me in my life happened to me here,” said Monica Camacho, a 22-year-old Maryland resident who came to the United States at the age of 7 from Mexico. “We are in the [U.S. government] system. Are we going to be deported? Will our parents be deported?”
“This is my home,” she said of the United States. “I want to be an elementary school teacher here. We want to contribute to the economy. We are not bad people, we love this country.”
Many critics of Obama’s immigration executive action say that even if the Trump administration were to obtain the information of DACA recipients, it is unlikely to move to deport them any time soon.
Trump has said his priority would be to track down and deport dangerous criminals and national security threats.
“They’re going to have their hands full trying to restructure immigration enforcement,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors strict enforcement. “Illegal aliens are all over the place, [immigration agents] don’t need to go after DACA recipients” specifically to crack down on illegal immigration.
Krikorian said that major immigration matters, such as border security, and chain family migration, must be fixed before hardliners in Congress would consider a measure giving special consideration to a path for legal status for immigrants who came as children.
“For people who came here and spent their entire schooling here, then sure,” Krikorian said of some kind of amnesty for them, “but cleaning up that mess that Obama created has to be in exchange for something.”
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.