Image: Six DACA registrants meet with President Obama in the Oval Office on 2/4/2015.
Keeping one’s word is a key principle in Torah. Much of Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2 – 32:42) is dedicated to the topic. The sages dedicated two tractates of Talmud Nedarim and Shavuot to the importance and binding quality of the spoken word.
American civil law is less interested in spoken commitments (as the old saying goes, “a verbal commitment is worth the paper it’s written on.”) However, once a commitment is written down and its conditions met, it too is regarded as a deeply important matter, a binding commitment.
There is a battle on in the United States right now over such an agreement. After several blocked attempts at immigration reform in the Congress, the Obama Administration announced a policy under which individuals who had been brought to the United States as minors, and who met stringent standards for behavior past and present, could remain in the United States legally provided they registered with the Department of Homeland Security. Should they get in trouble with the law – trouble of any kind – they can be deported. They may not receive public assistance such as food stamps or welfare. To apply for the program, immigrants must pay a $495 application fee, submit several forms, and produce documents showing they meet the requirements. This program was called DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
On September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the repeal of the DACA program. The Trump Administration justifies this repeal with a number of assertions, claiming that the program adversely affects native-born workers, that it caused the surge in unaccompanied minors, and that constitutional experts believe DACA to be unconstitutional. Fact checkers from the Associated Press and the Washington Post have refuted all of these claims. The DACA registrants are not “taking jobs” from native-born citizens. A 2016 study published in International Migration found that DACA did not significantly impact the number of minors arriving from Central America. No courts have yet ruled the DACA program unconstitutional.
The fact remains that the government of the United States made an agreement with young people of good character, taking from them a fee of $495 and registration information, and in return saying: “As long as you behave yourself, you can live in the United States.” The agreements were written down, commitments were made, and fees were paid.
Granted, life is often unfair. There are those who would say to the DACA registrants, “Sorry, your parents broke the law. You are therefore a criminal. Go back to your parents’ country of origin.” Perhaps, if enough people in our country believe that, we should not let anyone else sign up for the DACA program. But having made the agreement, having accepted their fees, having required them to give us information about themselves, it seems to me that we have an obligation to those who have already registered.
I have at least two students whom I know to be DACA registrants. They were brought here as small children, under no choice of their own. They have been educated in the United States, and they want to find a path to citizenship, because this is the only home they have ever known. They have done nothing wrong – they both submitted to vetting that proved they have been model individuals. That same vetting made them more vulnerable to deportation, since they are registered with the U.S. Government. Yet they trusted us; their great hope is to become part of us.
It is unfair to hold a child responsible for the misdeeds of their parents.
It is wrong to make an agreement and then renege on it.
I don’t know how this is going to work out. I do not know what is going to happen to my students.
All I know is that I am calling my elected officials every day, and I tell them three things:
- I believe in honoring agreements, in holding up my end of a deal.
- I do not believe in punishing people for the misdeeds of their parents.
- I believe that deporting these young people would be an act of profound injustice.
I believe that Torah demands that I do no less.