WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday that the Trump administration has terminated the Obama-era program that offered temporary legal status to young unauthorized immigrants, saying it was the “compassionate” thing to do.
“We are a people of compassion and we are a people of law,” Sessions said. “But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws.”
Sessions said U.S. citizens have lost their jobs because the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provided renewable two-year work permits and protection from deportation to 800,000 young immigrants who were brought to the country as minors and have no criminal record.
“The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences,” Sessions said. “It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”
Sessions’s fiery speech tying the decision to end the DACA policy as part of a larger push to restore the “rule of law” in America marked a stark contrast to the tone struck by Department of Homeland Security officials in a background call with reporters an hour before the announcement. The DHS officials, who declined to be identified on the record, said the decision to end DACA was not for moral or national security reasons, but simply because the administration had decided the policy would not survive an ongoing court challenge brought by Republican attorneys general.
According to DHS, people with DACA status that is expiring before March 5 have until Oct. 5 to apply to renew their two-year temporary legal status. Starting March 5, the department will no longer renew any DACA recipients, and the young people will begin to be eligible for deportation. Between January and August of 2019, more than 320,000 people are set to lose their temporary legal status.
One DHS official said the administration would continue to prioritize deporting unauthorized immigrants who committed crimes or had been removed and reentered the country illegally — not DACA recipients.
Sessions said it was Congress’s job to pass legislation offering the 800,000 young immigrants a path to legal status if they so chose.
“The compassionate thing 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 nation,” he said.
In a statement, Trump said he directed DHS not to make deporting DACA recipients a priority unless they engaged in illegal activity, and he urged Congress to take action to reform the immigration system.
“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,” he said. “We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling, and forgotten Americans.”
The move may significantly complicate an already jam-packed September for the GOP-controlled Congress, which needs to lift the debt ceiling, fund the government, allocate billions in relief for Hurricane Harvey flooding and hammer out potential tax reform legislation. Republicans were counting on Democratic votes for some of the funding measures, as the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus is against a vote to lift the U.S.’s borrowing limit without some fiscal austerity measures attached.
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill., said in a statement Democrats may withhold votes for funding the government unless Republicans agree to protect DACA recipients.
“I have already spoken with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus [CHC] and will be talking to other Democrats in the House, but if Republicans need our votes, we need to have legislation to protect immigrant youth who have DACA,” Gutiérrez said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the decision “heartless” and said Democrats would “do everything we can to prevent President Trump’s terribly wrong order from becoming reality.”
But several prominent Republican lawmakers have signaled they are willing to deal on DACA.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who said last week that Trump should not end DACA, hinted that lawmakers would now seek to address the status of the Dreamers as part of a broader legislative response.
“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,”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he would introduce legislation this week to provide a permanent path to legal status for DACA recipients who serve in the military, pursue higher education or are employed.
“President Trump is wisely giving Congress a period of time to fulfill its responsibility to legislate and take long-term action to address the uncertainty facing undocumented children, who were brought to America through no fault of their own,” Tillis said in a statement.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called on Trump to explicitly spell out what kind of measure for DACA recipients he would be willing to sign, so that Congress doesn’t “waste” time with bills that have no future while facing so many other pressing priorities. “We have no time to waste on ideas that do not have the votes to pass or that the president won’t sign,” he said in a statement.
Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and John McCain, R-Ariz., also released statements urging congressional action.
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