By Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis
The government will no longer accept new applications from people in the country illegally to shield them from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, administration officials announced Tuesday. But officials said about 800,000 current beneficiaries of the program will not be immediately affected by what they called an “orderly wind down” of former President Barack Obama’s policy.
Trump signaled the move early Tuesday in a tweet, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally announced the move to shift the responsibility for the immigration issue to lawmakers.
“The program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama administration is being rescinded,” Sessions told reporters, adding that “The policy was implemented unilaterally, to great controversy and legal concern.”
Sessions called the Obama-era policy an “open-ended circumvention of immigration laws” and an unconstitutional use of executive authority. “The executive branch through DACA deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions,” he said.
“The nation must set and enforce a limit on how many immigrants we accept each year, and that means all cannot be accepted.”
Elaine Duke, acting Homeland Security secretary, said in a statement that Trump chose to “wind the program down in an orderly fashion that protects beneficiaries in the near-term while working with Congress to pass legislation.”
The announcement was an effort by Trump to honor his campaign pledge to end Obama’s immigration policy, while avoiding an immediate termination of protections and work permits for the so-called Dreamers, many of whom have lived in the United States since they were small children.
“We are people of compassion, and we are people of law, but there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration law,” Sessions said.
Referring to Trump’s campaign promise to immediately terminate DACA, Sessions said Tuesday’s action was what “the president had promised to do,” adding that Trump “has delivered to the American people.”
But the announcement formally started the clock on revoking legal status from those protected under the 5-year-old program.
Officials said some of the current immigrants already receiving protection under the Obama-era plan will be able to renew their two-year period of legal status until Oct. 5. But the announcement means that if Congress fails to act, people in the country illegally who were brought to the United States as children could face deportation as early as March to countries where many of them have never lived.
Immigration officials said that they do not intend to actively target the young immigrants as priorities for deportation, though without the program’s protection, the immigrants are considered subject to removal from the United States and would no longer be able to work legally.
Homeland Security officials said no specific guidance would be issued to agents to shield the young immigrants from deportation. It would be up to Congress to extend such protection, they said.
Still, the president was conflicted until the end about how to address the plight of Dreamers, waffling repeatedly in recent days about how to phase out the program.
As late as one hour before the decision was to be announced, administration officials privately expressed concern that Trump might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind, according to a person familiar with their thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity without authorization to comment on it.
Trump’s action is certain to be met with condemnation from immigration advocacy groups, who have characterized it as a coldhearted move that would yield no benefit to the nation while endangering nearly a million young people raised in the United States who are seeking to work and pay taxes.
One such group, United We Dream, tweeted back at Trump on Tuesday morning, urging him not to take action against DACA. “No Donald – you don’t get to wash your hands. You have the power to keep DACA until Congress passes clean bill.”
The president’s move is also likely to be greeted with skepticism and frustration by many of his most conservative supporters, who had expected that Trump would put a permanent end to what they view as an illegal abuse of executive authority by Obama to grant amnesty to people in the country illegally.
And it is unclear whether the Republican-controlled Congress will be willing to pass legislative protections for the young immigrants in the country illegally. Republicans have repeatedly blocked similar legislation from passage for more than a decade.
Speaker Paul Ryan recently suggested that he believes Congress should handle the issue, saying that “this is something that Congress has to fix.”
But more conservative members of Ryan’s caucus are certain to oppose such moves, supported by loud, anti-immigrant hawks who dominate talk radio and conservative news programs.
Even in the bitter immigration debates of the past decade, children who were illegally brought to the United States at young ages by their parents, and who graduated from high school or sought to enter the military, have held a sympathetic place in the conversation.
They were branded as Dreamers for their inspiring personal stories and regarded by members of both parties as deserving of a special status. Opinion polls have found the public overwhelmingly supports granting them some form of legal standing that allows them to stay and work in the country where they were raised.
Trump, who made his hard-line immigration stance a calling card of his presidential campaign, savaged Obama for taking executive action in 2012 to protect Dreamers, calling his action unconstitutional and illegal, and vowing to immediately terminate the program if he won the White House.
But Obama made a personal appeal to his successor about the program and said it was one of the few initiatives he would speak out to defend after leaving office. And after being sworn in, Trump began to equivocate, musing aloud about the fate of “these incredible kids,” and promising to deal with them with “great heart” even as his core supporters complained that he was betraying an important campaign promise.
In recent weeks, Trump’s dilemma has grown more dramatic, after 10 state attorneys general wrote to Sessions, threatening to mount a legal challenge to DACA unless the administration phased out the program by Sept. 5. In a recent meeting at the White House, Sessions informed Trump he would not defend what he considered an unconstitutional order in court, according to people familiar with the conversation, and numerous officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security made the case to the president that his administration would look foolish if it argued in favor of preserving it.
In June, the administration ended a similar program Obama created in 2014 to expand eligibility for DACA and give legal status to as many as 5 million parents of citizens and legal permanent residents. That order was blocked by a legal challenge by the state of Texas, and the Supreme Court announced last year that it had deadlocked on the case, 4-4.
The attorneys general said if Trump did not take similar action to terminate DACA, they would amend the Texas lawsuit to include it and work to have a court overturn the program along with the other two.
As rumors about Trump’s impending move to end DACA ran rampant in recent days, advocacy groups and progressive activists agitated strongly against the decision, warning that it would be particularly divisive in the wake of the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month.