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opinion

The future of the United States still begins in California. That's not just or primarily because Silicon Valley remains a magnet for the planet's brightest and most ambitious technology minds. It's mainly because the demographic transformation under way in the most populous U.S. state provides a window onto what much of the country will look like a couple of decades from now.

Latinos now outnumber non-Hispanic whites among California's nearly 40 million residents. In 2016, Hispanics accounted for 38.9 per cent of the state's population compared with 37.7 per cent for non-Hispanic whites. The day is not far off when Hispanics or Latinos – the terms are used interchangeably by the U.S. Census Bureau – make up a majority of California's residents.

This means the fate of California and much of the country is tied to how well its Latino population succeeds in life. Hispanics are still more likely to drop out of high school than any other major ethnic group. In 2015, more than 90 per cent of non-Hispanic white people had a high-school diploma, compared with barely two-thirds of Hispanics. More than 36 per cent of white people had a postsecondary degree while only 15 per cent of Latinos had graduated from college.

The good news is that college enrolment among Hispanic youth has been increasing, in part thanks to former president Barack Obama's controversial move to grant protected status to illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children. Mr. Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) freed about 800,000 Hispanic youth from the threat of deportation and enabled them to get work permits, driver's licences and student loans.

California alone is home to a quarter of these "DREAMers." Their nickname is derived from a 2010 bill in Congress that aimed to provide them with legal status and a path to citizenship. The bill – known as Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act – earned broad bipartisan support but still failed to earn a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate. In the wake of that rejection, Mr. Obama faced mounting pressure from his base to take unilateral action.

That he did. On the eve of the 2012 election, in which the Obama campaign sought to raise Hispanic turnout in key swing states such as Nevada and Florida, the then-president signed the executive order known as DACA.

Whether or not it was the right thing to do is beside the point. Its timing was suspect and exposed Mr. Obama to charges of political opportunism. In an already polarized political climate, his unilateral move hardened opinion on both sides.

Red-state Republicans have had DACA in their crosshairs ever since.

They take a zero-tolerance stand on illegal immigration, arguing that granting a form of amnesty to one group of undocumented immigrants only encourages more illegal immigration. Of course, many of them are just pandering to white voters who feel threatened by the country's changing demography.

The right way to provide a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally by their parents is through the legislative process, not through an arguably unconstitutional presidential diktat. U.S. courts have already struck down a similar Obama executive action that sought to protect the illegal immigrant parents of children born in the United States.

Now, a group of Republican-led states has vowed to challenge the constitutionality of Mr. Obama's DACA order as early as this week unless Mr. Trump repeals the measure. Mr. Trump promised during last year's election campaign to end the program on Day 1 of his administration. But once in office, he vowed to treat these young people "with heart."

The dilemma Mr. Trump faces now is that, if he does not repeal DACA and GOP-led states take him to court over it, his administration would be forced to defend a measure he campaigned against. For a President in desperate need of a "win" to keep his own base onside, quashing DACA would be an easy one. But the Tin Man President is apparently conflicted because, in his own words, among these "drug dealers" and "gang members," there are some "incredible kids."

The White House has hinted that Mr. Trump may be willing to support a bipartisan effort to entrench DACA in legislation if Congress in turn authorizes initial spending for his long-promised wall on the Mexican border. That may be the lesser of two evils.

These DREAMers deserve to dream. The country's future depends on it.