Homeland security does little to ease nervous DACA recipients

PHOTO: Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine C. Duke testifies before the Senate Committee Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on "Threats to the Homeland" on Capitol Hill, Sept. 27, 2017 in Washington, D.C.PlayRon Sachs/CNP/Polaris
WATCH Democratic leaders, White House dispute deal on border wall

Undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children could have their personal information turned over to the agency tasked with removals.

Interested in Immigration?

Add Immigration as an interest to stay up to date on the latest Immigration news, video, and analysis from ABC News.
Add Interest

The acting Secretary of Homeland Security said Wednesday during a congressional hearing she could not guarantee the personal information of young immigrants who applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would not be turned over to immigration and customs authorities.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., pressed the acting secretary Elaine Duke about the issue, which has been one of the chief concerns among Democrats and immigration activists since President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that he would not renew the program unilaterally.

“These young people are terrified. They are terrified. They were told by your agency that if they submitted this comprehensive information about their background and their status to apply to DACA, that that information would not be shared with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” Harris said. “I've asked you. I've asked the former secretary. Are you willing to keep America's promise to these young people and not share their information with ICE?

“I can't unequivocally promise that, no,” Duke replied. The secretary noted that the program was started under a previous administration. “I do know that having them on two-year nonrenewable suspensions is not the answer and I look forward to working with the Congress and coming up with a better solution.”

Under the DACA program, started by President Barack Obama in 2012, young immigrants who came to the country undocumented as children could apply for legal status in order to work or attend school in the United States, and they could renew that status every two years if they continued to have no serious criminal record and met other criteria. Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the administration would begin winding down the program and stop taking applications for DACA renewals on Oct. 5. The president indicated he hoped Congress would take up the issue and pass a law to codify legal protections for the so-called “Dreamers” in the program.

When asked about the secretary’s comments, a DHS spokesperson said that the department has no plans to proactively share information with authorities for immigration enforcement purposes. The department gave similar guidance earlier this month when the Trump administration announced it would move to end the program.

Under the current policy, which has been in place since the start of the program, information provided by DACA applicants is protected from disclosure to ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the purpose of immigration enforcement, unless the requestor meets certain criteria, which includes fraud prevention, national security reasons or a criminal offense. This policy could be changed at any time, though.

As soon as the administration made its announcement, activists and immigrant families feared that those in the program, roughly 700,000 immigrants, could be specifically targeted by the immigration officials for deportation, as they had turned over personal contact information to be accepted into the program initially. Federal agencies acknowledged that should their paperwork expire, the Dreamers would be treated like any other low-priority case and potentially subject to arrest and removal.

Harris’s staff said they were not surprised by the secretary’s response in the hearing but were disappointed.

In December 2016, after the presidential election, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told concerned members of Congress in a letter that it was the agency’s “long-standing practice” to use information from people seeking deferred action or special status only for the purpose of “adjudicating their requests, and not for immigration enforcement purposes.”

However, when applying for the DACA program, immigrants specifically agreed that their information could be shared with immigration officials if they broke rules of the program or if the program itself changed.

“Dreamers across the country came forward in good faith and provided their personal information to a DHS that has now declared war on them and their families," Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, an immigrant rights organization, told ABC News in a statement Wednesday in response to Duke’s comments. “We believe this violation of trust is an assault on our community, on our nation, and on the law and we plan to explore every legal option available to us to press that very point.”