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Janet Napolitano first administered DACA as homeland security secretary 10 years ago

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Wednesday marks 10 years since the Obama administration put in place what was supposed to be temporary but has endured - DACA. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals provided legal status to so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents as children, allowing them to remain in the U.S. and apply for jobs.

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BARACK OBAMA: These are young people who study in our schools. They play in our neighborhoods. They're friends with our kids. They pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one - on paper.

RASCOE: Since President Obama announced the program, some 800,000 people have enrolled. The Trump administration tried to end DACA, but the Supreme Court ruled it didn't follow proper procedures, letting the program stand. And last year, a judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from approving new DACA applications, allowing only renewals. It was Janet Napolitano who first administered the program as President Obama's secretary of Homeland Security. She joins us now to talk about DACA's legacy 10 years after it was put in place. Thanks so much for being with us.

JANET NAPOLITANO: Thank you. Good morning.

RASCOE: You know, take us back to those days in 2012. How did the administration decide to put DACA in place, and how did those discussions look?

NAPOLITANO: The administration had been working with Congress to try to address particularly the problem of the young people known as DREAMers, as you said, young people brought here, typically, you know, around the age of 6 years old, who had grown up in the United States, gone to school in the United States, really had only known the United States as home, but they were undocumented. The first option was to see if Congress would address this legislatively. That failed. And it turned to myself as the secretary of Homeland Security to see if we could find another solution. We went to work. We looked at the law books, we looked at the regulatory structure, and we developed what became known as the DACA program.

RASCOE: And, I mean, was there any pushback from rank-and-file people at DHS?

NAPOLITANO: No. You know, it was interesting. In the immigration world, whenever you do anything, you can anticipate, you know, pushback. But we got fairly little pushback, even from the so-called immigration hard-liners. And I think it was because there was a general realization that these young people, who were going to school. They were in college. Some were in the military - that this was a group that it was simply inconsistent with American values to deport.

RASCOE: What do you think has made DACA endure this long?

NAPOLITANO: Well, I think it's endured this long because it's needed. This is a particular group, as I said. These are young people. They're American in every way. They know America as home but for the fact that they are undocumented. And while we wait for Congress to act, this was a temporary solution. There's no pathway to citizenship in DACA. Only Congress can do that.

RASCOE: So that being the case, you know, a ruling from a federal judge limited the program to only renewing applications, no longer accepting new ones. What do you see as the future of DACA?

NAPOLITANO: That's a good question. At its height, there were some 830,000 young people enrolled in the program. Now it's around 611,000 who are currently in and have renewed. But new applications are not being processed, and that's a shame. And it's wrong. And I think the court in Texas that issued that ruling was wrong on the law. But the current administration, I think, is trying to figure out what to do next.

RASCOE: Do you have any regrets about the way DACA was implemented, or regrets that it had to be basically an administrative action, something that came from DHS, and that it wasn't able to be made into a law during your time?

NAPOLITANO: Well, I think DACA was innovative, and it was creative. And it was created because Congress was unable to act. And it caused us to figure out a solution that would work during this period. And I think it did work. It was a material help to all these young people. They've been contributing positively to our country ever since, paying, you know, millions, if not billions in taxes, among other things, you know, lending us or giving our country their talents, their energy, their work. I think DACA has endured and has had such a strong legacy because it was the right thing to do.

RASCOE: Secretary Janet Napolitano. Thank you so much for being with us.

NAPOLITANO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.