That moment finally came on Tuesday.
The former president, who has attempted to strike a careful balance between defending his legacy and not getting mired in a contentious political environment, issued a lengthy statement on Tuesday in response to President Trump’s decision to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“This is about young people who grew up in America—kids who study in our schools, young adults who are starting careers, patriots who pledge allegiance to our flag,” Obama wrote on his Facebook page, in a post that received over 200,000 likes in under an hour.
“These Dreamers are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents, sometimes even as infants. They may not know a country besides ours. They may not even know a language besides English. They often have no idea they’re undocumented until they apply for a job, or college, or a driver’s license.”
DACA, created by Obama in 2012 as a byproduct of his frustrations with Congress on immigration reform, protected nearly 800,000 undocumented young people from deportation. The program, and its beneficiaries who have gained employment, enrolled in higher education, and built lives, was largely seen as a success, if only a temporary one.
Now young undocumented immigrants who came out of the shadows to qualify for the program face the risk of deportation. And President Trump has passed the buck to Congress to find a solution for these young people before recipients begin losing their protected status in March of 2018.
Without naming Trump directly, Obama framed the argument for protecting DREAMers as one of “basic decency,” characterizing the threatened deportation of these undocumented young men and women as lacking in American values.
“To target these young people is wrong—because they have done nothing wrong,” the former president continued in the Tuesday Facebook post. “It is self-defeating—because they want to start new businesses, staff our labs, serve in our military, and otherwise contribute to the country we love. And it is cruel. What if our kid’s science teacher, or our friendly neighbor turns out to be a Dreamer? Where are we supposed to send her? To a country she doesn’t know or remember, with a language she may not even speak?”
Last week, as the Trump administration weighed a decision on DACA, it had become readily apparent that Obama would have to step back into the fray once again despite any potential fallout of becoming an easy foil for the current president. Aides in the immediate Obama circle were hesitant to provide any preemptive readout on what the former president might say or do. The team, like the rest of the world, intimated that they were waiting on an official announcement before proceeding.
But Obama had already raised the stakes of the debate after using his last White House press conference as president to issue a warning to Trump.
“The notion that we would just arbitrarily or, because of politics, punish those kids, when they didn’t do something themselves... would merit my speaking out,” Obama said during the final days of his presidency.
In a private conversation earlier that month, Obama had implored Trump to protect DACA recipients.
Those who served with the former president were dumbfounded as to Trump’s reason for eliminating this program—particularly during the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Harvey, which impacted the lives of many DREAMers in Texas.
“There’s no rationale for revoking DACA. And the harm it would cause is enormous,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Obama, told The Daily Beast last week.
She described the issue as something of great importance to Obama, saying that his meetings with DACA recipients during his presidency were “some of the most personal meetings I saw him have.”
“He believed in their courage and the courage it took them to tell their stories,” Muñoz said.
Peter Boogaard, former White House and National Security Council Spokesman and Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary, told The Daily Beast that there was no way Obama, or anyone else for that matter, would not be touched and impressed by DREAMers. And when the time came, he had no choice but to speak out.
“He has shown great moral leadership on this issue,” said Boogaard, who is now communications director at FWD.us, an advocacy group founded by tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg. “He did the right thing by stepping forward and creating the DACA program in 2012.”
Boogaard described the difficulty for Obama in weighing these moments of political involvement so as not to create the impression that the country has “two presidents.”
But while Obama can only draw attention to the issue, he of course can’t fix the problem. And now the decision rests with Congress as to how they are going to provide a solution with nearly 800,000 lives at stake. Democrats on Tuesday began pushing once again for an iteration of the 16-year-old Dream Act which would provide a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants. They have been adamantly opposed to using funding for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the RAISE Act, a Republican measure on the table that would restrict legal immigration. To say that immigration reform is a tall order is an understatement—but Boogaard thinks the time is now.
“Every single member of Congress needs to decide if they’re going to be standing with DREAMers or standing by as these incredible young people are ripped out of their communities,” Boogaard told The Daily Beast. “There's just no middle ground here.”