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U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration moved Tuesday to end a program that shielded 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation, but gave Congress six months to act if it wants to continue to allow them to remain in the United States years after their parents illegally brought them into the country.
Trump approved the decision but sent Attorney General Jeff Sessions before cameras to announce the controversial policy change. Sessions ended President Barack Obama’s five-year-old executive order that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program with a terse statement: “DACA is being rescinded.”
The program allowed young people, who typically entered the country when they were six years old, mostly from Mexico and Central American nations, to work and study in the U.S. and serve in its military.
“We cannot admit everyone who wants to come here,” said Sessions. “All cannot be accepted.” He added that limiting immigration “means we are properly enforcing our laws.”
The undocumented immigrants, collectively known as Dreamers, have mostly known the U.S. as their home, but could, starting early next March, be deported to their home countries unless Congress acts legislatively to block their removal.
“Congress, get ready to do your job – DACA,” Trump had said in a Twitter comment before the official announcement, referring in an acronym to Obama’s program.
Sessions, an immigration hard-liner who had pressed Trump to end the program, took no questions from reporters in announcing the end of protections against mass deportations.
Acting Homeland Security chief Elaine Duke said in a statement, “This administration’s decision to terminate DACA was not taken lightly. The Department of Justice has carefully evaluated the program’s constitutionality and determined it conflicts with our existing immigration laws.”
She added, “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.”
Duke said that attorneys general in several states, including Texas, on the southern U.S. border with Mexico, had told Homeland Security officials that if Trump’s administration did not move to end Obama’s program by Tuesday, it would seek a court order to overturn the program [[https://www.voanews.com/a/justice-department-may-decide-fate-of-daca/3946100.html]]. Conservative lawmakers and some Republican officials have long contended that Obama’s order amounted to impermissible executive overreach.
The Homeland Security chief said that “no current beneficiaries” of the program would be affected before March 5, 2018, giving Congress a chance to act legislatively. DACA recipients whose permits expire before that date will be allowed to renew if they do by October 5. DHS officials said no other renewals would be acted on.
Duke said that Sessions had told her in a letter Monday that Obama had created the program “without proper statutory authority and with no established end-date, after Congress’ repeated rejection of proposed legislation that would have accomplished a similar result. Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.”
DACA recipients worry
Although DHS officials indicated in a press call that they would not change their policies towards prioritizing criminals for deportation and would not actively pursue DACA recipients, Sarai Bravo told VOA in New York that she can’t help but worry.
“This is the only country and the only place that I know is home, I’m not planning on leaving. Unless I’m forced to. So I’m going to continue fighting, coming with the rest of the community and encouraging people to come out and fight, and that is my plan. Trying to stay here forever…,” she said.
Despite widespread, but not universal, U.S. sentiment favoring letting the young people affected by the Obama order remain the U.S., action by Congress is not certain.
Lawmakers for years have been unsuccessful in transforming U.S. immigration policies despite repeated legislative attempts. During Obama’s eight-year tenure in the White House, the Senate approved major policy changes only to see the legislation die in the House of Representatives.
A small protest against Trump’s action unfolded in front of the White House Tuesday morning in support of DACA and its recipients and demonstrations are also expected in other cities across the United States.
One immigrant activist, Gustavo Torres, with the protesters behind him, told the crowd: “This president lied to our community… he told us ‘I have a big hope for you dreamers.’ He’s a liar!”
However, Trump came into office with a promise to eliminate DACA, but at times seemed to ease up on that rhetoric; since his inauguration, however, the president has prioritized bolstering the country’s deportation system, calling for thousands more immigration and border agents to be hired.
“DACA is not legislation, it’s executive action and the president could rightfully abandon it altogether or piece by piece,” explains David Abraham, professor of immigration and citizenship law at the University of Miami School of Law.
The states of New York and Washington said if Trump does end DACA, they will challenge the decision in court.
“We should not and cannot sit on the sidelines and watch the lives of these young people ruined,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement. “We have both a legal and moral obligation to make sure that the laws are faithfully executed without discrimination or animus.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan and several other Republican lawmakers had urged the president not to cancel the program. Ryan says he believes Congress should come up with a way of protecting people now in the DACA program.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has asked Ryan to work with Democrats this week to find a legislative solution for Trump’s ending the program.
There are DACA supporters on both sides of the political aisle in the United States, but key members of Trump’s inner circle – including Sessions – and many Republican members of Congress are vocal opponents who have criticized the program’s creation as executive overreach on Obama’s part.
VOA News Center reporter Ramon Taylor contributed to this report from New York.