President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that his administration will end an Obama-era program that offers protection to thousands of young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. But he will give lawmakers six months to act first, effectively punting the fate of so-called Dreamers into the hands of Congress.
It’s not clear whether Republican lawmakers, who have struggled for years to agree on an immigration reform package and who face a series of other high-stakes deadlines this fall, will be able to score a legislative solution by March.
And Trump appears to have dramatically upped the stakes, with the White House saying Congress needs to pass “responsible immigration reform” that not only addresses former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but also improves the green card system and establishes a merit-based immigration framework.
The countdown clock began ticking Tuesday morning.
“It is now time for Congress to act!” Trump declared in a lengthy statement.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated Tuesday that Trump won’t settle for “just a one-piece fix,” suggesting the president would refuse to sign a standalone bill on DACA.
“We’ve got to do an overall immigration reform that’s responsible and, frankly, that’s lawful, and that’s what the president wants to see Congress do,” she told reporters. “We can’t just have one tweak to the immigration system. We need really big fixes and big reform in this process.”
Sanders also tweaked the Republican-led Congress, which so far has failed to act on Trump’s legislative agenda, including repealing Obamacare, passing tax reform and tackling an infrastructure package.
“They just came back from a three-week vacation. I think that they should be rested and ready to take on some big challenges that America faces,” Sanders added of lawmakers, who returned to work on Tuesday after a nearly month-long August recess. “If Congress doesn’t want to do the job that they were elected to do, then maybe they should get out of the way and let someone else do it.”
Obama, in a rare statement, defended his executive action on DACA. He blamed Congress for never sending him a bill that would offer Dreamers an opportunity to stay in the country and earn citizenship if they attend college or serve in the military. But he urged lawmakers to “protect these young people,” who are Americans “in every single way but one: on paper.”
“To target these young people is wrong — because they have done nothing wrong. It is self-defeating … And it is cruel,” said Obama, who called Trump’s rescission “contrary to our spirit, and to our common sense.”
“Let’s be clear: the action taken today isn’t required legally. It’s a political decision, and a moral question,” Obama wrote.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump said the Department of Homeland Security will start “an orderly transition and wind-down” of the DACA program — “with minimum disruption.”
“This is a gradual process, not a sudden phase out. Permits will not begin to expire for another six months, and will remain active for up to 24 months,” Trump said. “Thus, in effect, I am not going to just cut DACA off, but rather provide a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who last Friday called on Trump to not immediately end DACA, on Tuesday called the program “a clear abuse of executive authority” while encouraging lawmakers to act quickly on the issue.
“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,” Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a short statement knocking Obama for using executive power on immigration reform, but he did not express optimism about swift legislative action.
“This Congress will continue working on securing our border and ensuring a lawful system of immigration that works,” said McConnell, who has publicly clashed with Trump in recent weeks.
There are also deep divisions among Republicans about how to tackle the DACA issue — never mind overall immigration reform — and some lawmakers tried to put the pressure back on the White House on Tuesday.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the failed Gang of Eight immigration reform effort in 2013, said: “It is important that the White House clearly outline what kind of legislation the president is willing to sign. We have no time to waste on ideas that do not have the votes to pass or that the president won’t sign.”
Trump has wrestled for months with how to handle the future of DACA, which many Republicans consider a major executive overreach by Obama. While the president promised on the campaign trail to end the program, he has repeatedly expressed sympathy for the roughly 800,000 young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and have received work permits under the program.
“I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents,” Trump said Tuesday. “But we must also recognize that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”
He later told reporters that his administration has “a great heart” and “a great love” for Dreamers. “I have a love for these people, and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” Trump said. “Really we have no choice. We have to be able to do something, and I think it’s going to work out very well, and long term it’s going to be the right solution.”
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke on Tuesday formally rescinded the memo that created DACA in 2012, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered a lengthy legal justification for the decision. Sessions outlined his concerns with the DACA program in a letter on Monday, according to one senior DHS official. And the attorney general said he advised the president and DHS to begin “an orderly, lawful wind-down” of the program.
“This will enable DHS to conduct an orderly change and fulfill the desire of this administration to create a time period for Congress to act — should it so choose. We firmly believe this is the responsible path,” Sessions said, encouraging lawmakers to “carefully and thoughtfully” pursue immigration reform.
Sessions, who briefed the media at the Justice Department on Tuesday, departed without responding to questions shouted by reporters, including about what the government plans to do with information applicants to the DACA program submitted, and whether the administration will target so-called Dreamers for deportation.
A senior DHS official said Dreamers whose work permits expire by March 5 will be allowed to apply for a two-year renewal, as debate continues about the future of the program. The renewal application must be submitted by Oct. 5, and Tuesday is the last day the administration will consider new applications, the official said.
The unclear future of DACA leaves thousands of Dreamers in limbo. More than 10,000 new applications for legal status were filed between January and March (and more than 141,000 renewals were filed within the same time span), according to data provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
Sessions cautioned that the U.S. “must set and enforce” the number of immigrants it admits each year, as he laid out a long legal rationale for the decision. “And that means all cannot be accepted,” he said. “This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way. It means we are properly enforcing our laws as Congress has passed them.”
On a call with reporters Tuesday, senior DHS officials faced repeated questions about whether the information supplied in DACA applications could be used for future deportation efforts.
One official said such information is currently only accessed in cases where there is “a significant law enforcement or national security interest” but said policies could change down the road. “There’s no way to know what we’re going to be doing in six months,” the official said.
When asked if DHS would destroy data on DACA recipients, a senior official said there are no plans to do that. “We retain immigration history for everyone who’s passed through those systems,” the official said.
Trump, however, said the administration’s immigration enforcement priorities haven’t changed, stressing that the focus is on criminals, recent border-crossers, visa overstays and repeat offenders. “DACA recipients are not enforcement priorities unless they are criminals, are involved in criminal activity, or are members of a gang,” the president said.
Trump faced an unofficial Tuesday deadline from nine conservative state attorneys general on the issue. Led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state officials threatened a legal challenge if the administration didn’t rescind Obama’s executive action on DACA and pledge not to renew or issue new permits. The move would have likely forced the administration to formally weigh in about the program’s future.
Paxton applauded the president’s decision to rescind DACA and withdrew his lawsuit.
Sessions, for his part, described Obama’s executive action establishing the DACA program as an “unconstitutional” and indefensible unilateral “overreach” that disrespected the legislative process.
“We are a people of compassion and we are a people of law. But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws,” Sessions said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called on Congress to “quickly find a legislative solution.” But Congress faces a series of deadlines this fall — to repeal and replace Obamacare by a simple majority, pass a government spending bill, reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, increase the debt limit and pass a Hurricane Harvey aid package — and it’s unclear whether lawmakers will find a compromise by March.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) held a joint news conference Tuesday afternoon touting their bipartisan DREAM Act, a bill that would shield Dreamers from deportation and offer them an opportunity to obtain legal status should they meet certain requirements. Graham expressed sympathy toward Dreamers and highlighted Congress as the only obstacle between them and certainty in their lives.
“That cannot be that reassuring,” he quipped. “The Congress is going to have to up its game.”
The South Carolina Republican added that Trump made the right decision rescinding DACA and punting to Congress but made a plea for the president to help lawmakers get immigration reform over the finish line.
“You’ve talked very glowingly about these kids. Help us,” Graham said. “Help us in the House. Help us in the Senate. You’re a good man. Get involved personally. Work the phones. Try to find a consensus here.”
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, an immigration hardliner who has retaken the helm of Breitbart News, is prepared to take on Ryan and McConnell in the looming immigration battle.
And inaction on Congress’ behalf could pit Bannon against Trump himself, as the president would likely have to take a position. A senior White House aide told POLITICO he didn’t expect Trump to follow through on terminating DACA if GOP lawmakers fail to act, noting the president’s torn feelings on the issue.
Trump personally challenged lawmakers to reform more than just the DACA program.
“We are facing the symptom of a larger problem, illegal immigration, along with the many other chronic immigration problems Washington has left unsolved,” Trump said. “I look forward to working with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to finally address all of these issues in a manner that puts the hardworking citizens of our country first.”
Trump’s decision to rescind DACA has already worsened his rocky relationship with business leaders, many of whom had fled from the president’s advisory councils after his controversial rhetoric last month following a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Javier Palomarez, the CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, accused the president of deceiving the American people with his past comments on protecting Dreamers and resigned from his post on the president’s National Diversity Coalition.
“The president misled our country by fabricating a position and making promises, only to turn around and do the complete opposite,” he said in a statement “vehemently” opposing the president’s “disgraceful action.”
Ted Hesson, Josh Gerstein, Eliana Johnson and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
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