WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration is officially terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in six months and punting the matter to Congress, putting nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation if the president and members of the House and Senate can't make a deal to protect them.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump sent out Attorney General Jeff Sessions to announce his policy decision. Sessions, who supports enforcing current law through increased deportations, has opposed the DACA program since its inception under President Barack Obama in 2012. As a senator, he helped block legislative efforts to help so-called "Dreamers" who came to the U.S. as children.
"We are people of compassion and we are people of law," Sessions said during a speech at the Department of Justice. "But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws. ... The compassionate thing to do is to end the lawlessness, enforce our laws and, if Congress chooses to make changes to those laws, to do so through the process set forth by our founders in a way that advances the interest of the American people."
DACA protections, which last for two years and allow Dreamers to work legally, won't end immediately. Current DACA recipients whose permits expire between now and March 5 can apply to renew them, but must submit their renewal applications by Oct. 5 or will be unable to do so. Individuals who do not currently have DACA protections cannot receive permits unless they applied to the program before Sept. 5.
Dreamers whose permits expire on March 6 or later will begin to lose their protections and work permits as soon as they expire, putting them at risk of deportation.
Trump said in a statement that he "advised the Department of Homeland Security that DACA recipients are not enforcement priorities unless they are criminals, are involved in criminal activity, or are members of a gang."
But losing DACA protections would nonetheless put Dreamers at risk of being sent away from the country they've lived in since they were children. Although administration officials have said their focus is on deporting criminals, they have also made clear that no undocumented immigrant is safe from being detained or forced out of the country. That includes Dreamers, some of whom have already been locked up.
Department of Homeland Security officials said before the announcement that there are no plans to specifically target current DACA recipients or use their information for enforcement purposes, although they will continue to do so if needed for criminal or national security investigations.
The official Trump administration announcement comes on the Sept. 5 deadline set by 10 state attorneys general who threatened legal action if Trump did not announce a phaseout of DACA by that date. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III (R) backed off that threat last week, but the others continued to demand an end to the program. The threat was not a court order, so it was not a mandate for the Trump administration to end the program ahead of a legal challenge or ruling.
Trump misstated the facts of the threat in a statement after Sessions' announcement. The president claimed that "officials from 10 States are suing over the program," even though they had not taken legal action and only nine of the 10 states had maintained that threat.
Ahead of Trump's announcement, a number of Republicans said they would be willing to support protections for Dreamers that Democrats have attempted to get through Congress multiple times.
"We are people of compassion and we are people of law, but there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws.U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Most Republicans opposed those past measures, including the Dream Act, a bill first introduced in 2001 that would grant legal status to some undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. The bill has a small number of Republican supporters, but the White House immediately shot it down when it was re-introduced in the Senate in July.
Some Republicans are pushing what they say is a more conservative version of the Dream Act, called the Recognizing America's Children Act, or RAC Act, which would offer a path to citizenship to a smaller category of Dreamers.
Sessions' speech only mentioned one piece of legislation specifically: the RAISE Act, which would slash legal immigration numbers and has nothing to do with Dreamers. His remarks more broadly made the case against offering Dreamers legal status, something he has opposed many times throughout his career.
Sessions said that DACA "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs" ― an argument that could also be applied to legislation that allows Dreamers to stay in the country and work legally. He claimed that a surge in unaccompanied minors at the southwest U.S. border was also due to DACA, although those children were ineligible for the program. Sessions also said that the U.S. "must set and enforce a limit on how many immigrants we admit each year."
"This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way," Sessions said. "It means we are properly enforcing our laws as Congress has passed them."
Trump's statement similarly emphasized other changes to the immigration system. Like Sessions, he cited the RAISE Act and said his "first and highest priority in advancing immigration reform must be to improve jobs, wages and security for American workers and their families."
"As I've said before, we will resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion — but through the lawful Democratic process — while at the same time ensuring that any immigration reform we adopt provides enduring benefits for the American citizens we were elected to serve," the statement read. "We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling, and forgotten Americans."
This story has been updated with Donald Trump's statement.