President Donald Trump on Tuesday began to shut down a popular Obama-era program that protects young people brought into the country illegally as children, fulfilling a campaign promise after seven months of hinting that he might do something to save the Dreamers.
“We must remember that young Americans have dreams too,” Trump said in a statement. “Being in government means setting priorities. Our first and highest priority in advancing immigration reform must be to improve jobs, wages and security for American workers and their families.”
Calling the program illegal, the administration announced its termination would come after a six-month delay to give Congress time to pass a legislative fix that might allow 800,000 people here illegally to stay in the only country many of them have ever known.
But the White House made it clear Tuesday that Trump wants Congress not just to pass a bill that helps Dreamers but a larger immigration package — which lawmakers have failed to pass for years — and that he is willing to trade protections of Dreamers for money that would fund a wall on the southern border.
“I don't think the American people elected Congress to do things that were easy,” said Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “They elected them to make a government that works, to work properly, and to work for American people. And that's their job. And if they can't do it, then they need to get out of the way and let somebody else who can take on a heavy lift and get things accomplished.”
In the meantime, the administration will not accept any new applications for the program known as DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — but will allow hundreds of thousands of Dreamers to renew their two-year work permits if they expire in the next six months.
Those currently protected by the program will keep their special two-year status until their work permits expire. If their DACA status expires before March 5, they will have until Oct. 5 to apply for one more renewal, meaning Dreamers should be able to keep their status until 2019. Those whose protections expire after March 5 will lose their protected status.
A senior Department of Homeland Security official told reporters that the administration will continue to focus on criminals for deportation, though Dreamers could be detained if they are involved with other targeted immigrants. DHS will not use DACA recipients’ personal identifying information for enforcement purposes, though their records would be maintained, the official said.
Administration officials said the decision to gradually rather than abruptly end the program shows Trump is treating Dreamers with “great heart,” as he had pledged to do. Just last week, Trump said, “We love the Dreamers.”
Still, the decision signaled to advocates on both sides of the immigration issue that Trump planned to proceed with the immigration proposals that powered his 2016 campaign — from boosting deportations to building a border wall.
“To target these young people is wrong — because they have done nothing wrong,” former President Barack Obama wrote on his Facebook page. “It is self-defeating — because they want to start new businesses, staff our labs, serve in our military, and otherwise contribute to the country we love. And it is cruel.”
The announcement, postponed several times, came on the day of a deadline imposed by 10 states that threatened to sue the U.S. government if it did not end the program. Those states argued that Obama overstepped his executive powers in granting the special protections. The Justice Department determined the program violated U.S. existing immigration laws, officials said.
“This administration’s decision to terminate DACA was not taken lightly,” said Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “As a result of recent litigation, we were faced with two options: wind the program down in an orderly fashion that protects beneficiaries in the near-term while working with Congress to pass legislation; or allow the judiciary to potentially shut the program down completely and immediately. We chose the least disruptive option.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a close ally of Trump’s on immigration issues who had advised the states threatening to sue, said in an interview that he wanted a faster end to DACA but that each state must decide for itself whether to drop their opposition.
“Each state’s making their mind up right now, so they have to weigh a number of things,” he said. “One is the probability of success. The probability of success on the merits is very high, but a judge now might say I don’t have to get to the merits because it will be moot in X number of months.”
Several of the states that had threatened to sue, including Texas, Kansas, South Carolina and Idaho, praised Trump’s decision despite the fact that some Dreamers will hold work permits for longer than two years from now.
“Had former President Obama’s unilateral order on DACA been left intact, it would have set a dangerous precedent by giving the executive branch sweeping authority to bypass Congress and change immigration laws,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said.
Other states, including Washington and New York, immediately said they would sue Trump for ending the program.
The decision puts pressure on a Republican-controlled Congress to produce a legislative fix for the immigrants and avoid backlash from voters, business executives and donors who have urged compassion for the Dreamers. Sixty-four percent of Americans support allowing Dreamers to stay in the United States, according to NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll released Thursday.
"I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. “I can tell you, speaking to members of Ccongress, they want to be able to do something and do it right. And really we have no choice, we have to be able to do something, and I think it's going to work out very well."
But finding a solution will be tough for Washington’s feuding Republicans, who control both the White House and Congress for the first time in 10 years and are saddled with a host of other problems, including avoiding a government shutdown and paying to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey.
“This Congress will continue working on securing our border and ensuring a lawful system of immigration that works,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. said in a brief statement.
On Friday, as Trump inched closer to an announcement, House Speaker Paul Ryan joined a small but growing number of Republicans, including including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who urged Trump not end the program. And on Tuesday, he pledged to work on a legislative fix.
“It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country,” he said.
Conservative lawmakers led by Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina are already working on a a bill that would provide a path to permanent residency to people brought here illegally as children.
“Immigration policy should be set through legislation, not executive orders,” Tillis tweeted Friday. “It’s the responsibility of Congress to address the long-term uncertainty facing undocumented minors.”
Jonathan Shorman of the Wichita Eagle contributed.