WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday began dismantling Barack Obama's program protecting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, declaring he loves the "dreamers" who could face deportation but insisting it's up to Congress, not him, to address their plight.
Trump didn't specify what he wanted done, essentially sending a six-month time bomb to his fellow Republicans in Congress who have no consensus on how to defuse it.
The president tried to have it both ways with his compromise plan: fulfilling his campaign promise to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, while at the same time showing compassion for those who would lose deportation protection and the ability to work legally in the U.S. New applications will be rejected and the program will be formally rescinded, but the administration will continue to renew existing two-year work permits for the next six months, giving Congress time to act.
"I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly," Trump told reporters.
Yet at the same time, the White House distributed talking points to members of Congress that included a dark warning: "The Department of Homeland Security urges DACA recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States."
Responses to the DACA decision
"Just as President Nixon went to China, President Trump uniquely can lead a revision of our immigration laws that secures our borders, improves our system of legal immigration and solves problems such as the 800,000 children who grew up here, but were brought here illegally. I voted for such a law in 2013 and am willing to work with the president to do that again."
— U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
"The president is right to want this issue to be resolved legislatively. Hopefully, while addressing it, we also will deal with a myriad of other issues that need to be corrected with our broken immigration system, including enhancing enforcement and security measures."
— U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
"Congress is the one that needs to decide how the DACA program or how the immigration programs should work, and it's my hope that they come up with a program that does three things: that balances the compassion and the practical reality of people who are here makes certain that we respect the rule of law that this country is based on."
— Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
"While I am sympathetic to the intent of the DACA program and the situation of those affected by it, the fact remains that the program was created through an unconstitutional reach of executive power under the Obama Administration. The 6-month delay will provide Congress with the proper time necessary to craft legislation to address the immigration issues facing our nation."
— U.S. Rep. Chuck Flesichmann, R-Tenn.
"You were brought here through no fault of your own. It's not your fault you didn't have paperwork when you were 2 or 3 years old. But you've done everything right. You're working hard in school, you have bright futures, and we want your future to be here in the United States of America. I am thankful for your presence in this country. I am thankful for your innocence and your hard work."
— U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., to DACA participants
"The president's decision to terminate the DACA program is incomprehensibly cruel, reckless, and immoral. How can the president believe the country is better off with this generation of young Americans in the deportation pipeline instead of in the classroom or workforce? This callous action is a betrayal of our country's values and who we say we are.Thousands of business, faith, education, and civic leaders have been urging the president to keep this critical program in tact, but instead he sided with the most extreme and fringe voices in his administration. It is now up to Congress to move swiftly to restore protections for these young immigrants and mitigate the devastation this president is causing to communities across the country."
— Stephanie Teatro, co-director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition
"Democrats proudly stand by the 8,340 DACA beneficiaries in Tennessee. We will continue to work to fix our broken immigration system and the most important step in doing so is to support the young DREAMers who were brought here by no fault of their own and are positively contributing to the health and well-being of this country. The Trump administration has bent to the wishes of extremists in the Republican party and has turned its back on hard-working students and families, forcing thousands of young people back into the shadows and tearing families and communities apart. It is a cruel and devastating blow to the young immigrants who know no other country than this one."
— Mary Mancini, chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic Party
"We are quite disappointed that the Trump Administration is going to be shutting down the DACA program in six months. This has many repercussions for the Tennessee community, including the fact that 8,340 young Tennesseans, and 800,000 young people nationwide, will lose their jobs and face the threat of immediate deportation. The DACA program had previously allowed these young individuals to receive temporary relief from deportation, attend schools, work, and become integral members of our community. We need to pass a permanent legislative solution to give these young, hard-working individuals the chance to avoid deportation back to countries they have never known and continue to be contributing members to our Tennessee community. Republicans and Democrats in Congress must come together quickly to do so. Currently, DACA recipients in Tennessee pay almost $21.3 million a year in state and local taxes. With the loss of DACA protections, Tennessee will lose $7.5 million every year. Additionally, the GDP loss from removing DACA workers in Tennessee will cost the state $338,141,272 every year as well as $460 billion nationally over the next decade. We sincerely hope that Congress will join the overwhelming majority of Americans who support protecting these hardworking young people and pass a legislative solution in September to make America a place they can continue to call home."
— Statement from FWD.us Tennessee Coalition
"Moving forward, it is imperative that any immigration proposals considered by Congress protect the interests of working Americans, including immigrants. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past with a comprehensive immigration bill that does not work. The RAISE Act's changes to our legal immigration system should be part of the solution. I will continue working with Senator Cotton and my colleagues to advance this merit-based system that is pro-worker, pro-growth, and proven to work."
— U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.
"Ending #DACA is wrong. Thank you to our #DREAMers for bravely sharing their stories. RT to #DefendDACA."
— Tweet by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate James Mackler of Nashville
Although Trump's announcement had been anticipated in recent days, it still left young people covered by the DACA program reeling.
"You just feel like you are empty," said a sobbing Paola Martinez, 23, who came to the U.S. from Colombia and recently graduated with a civil engineering degree from Florida International University
"I honestly can't even process it right now," said Karen Marin, an immigrant from Mexico, who was in a physics class at Bronx Community College when the news broke. "I'm still trying to get myself together."
Their predicament now shifts to Congress, which has repeatedly tried — and failed — to pass immigration legislation.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president would look to Congress to pass a "responsible immigration reform package" with money to control the border with Mexico and better protect American workers' jobs — along with protecting "dreamers."
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said if Trump truly wants a comprehensive immigration reform package, including a solution for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, he's certain to be disappointed. Congress tried that and failed in 2013, and GOP leaders immediately ruled it out Tuesday.
"Guaranteed failure," Cornyn said.
If the goal is a more incremental package that combines a solution for the "dreamers" with steps such as visa reforms and enhanced border security, "there may be a deal to be had," Cornyn said.
Sanders' blunt warning to lawmakers skeptical they can come up with a plan: "If they can't, then they should get out of the way and let somebody else take their job that can actually get something done."
The DACA program was created by former President Obama by executive action in 2012, when it became clear Congress would not act to address the young immigrants' plight in legislation that was dubbed the "Dream Act." Trump ran his campaign as an immigration-hard liner, labeling DACA as illegal "amnesty" and pledging to repeal it immediately. But he shifted his approach after the election, expressing sympathy for the "dreamers," many of whom were brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were very young and have no memories of the counties where they were born.
Trump's aides painted his move to gradually phase out the program as the best of bad options: State officials had threatened a lawsuit if he did not act by Tuesday to repeal the program, which has given nearly 800,000 young immigrants a reprieve from deportation and the ability to work legally in the U.S. in the form of two-year, renewable work permits.
"In effect, I am not going to just cut DACA off, but rather provide a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act," Trump said. He said he was not in favor of punishing children for the actions of their parents, but he added, "Young Americans have dreams, too."
Lawmakers were trickling back to the Capitol Tuesday from a summer recess and already are confronting a daunting to-do list including a relief package for Hurricane Harvey victims and a pressing need to raise the federal borrowing limit. Some GOP lawmakers and aides are discussing the possibility of a bipartisan immigration package, including a solution for the dreamers, money for border security and enforcement, and perhaps other items like changes to some visa programs.
A stand-alone bill addressing just the "dreamers" seems unlikely to pass the House, given the firm stance of many conservatives. And it's unclear whether Trump would sign it anyway.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said he hoped 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."
Under the phase-out plan announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Homeland Security was halting acceptance of new applications under DACA as of Tuesday. People with permits set to expire between now and March 5, 2018, will be able to re-apply as long as their applications are submitted by Oct. 5. Existing permits will remain in effect, and applications already in the pipeline will be processed.
That means the earliest that dreamers would begin to lose protections under the program would be next March.
Trump's action nonetheless drew swift criticism from immigration advocates, Democratic lawmakers and business and religious leaders who had urged Trump to spare the program.
Obama slammed the decision as "wrong," ''self-defeating" and "cruel."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called it "a deeply shameful act of political cowardice and a despicable assault on innocent young people in communities across America."
Some Republicans objected, too.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Trump was taking "the wrong approach," and he added: "The federal government has a responsibility to defend and secure our borders, but we must do so in a way that upholds all that is decent and exceptional about our nation."
One bill addressing the issue that has received significant attention, introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would allow young immigrants who grew up in the U.S. to earn lawful permanent residence and eventually American citizenship if they complete a list of requirements.
The president, Graham declared, must "work the phones ... try and get a consensus here."
"From a Republican Party point of view, this is a defining moment," he said.
Trump's announcement came the same day as a deadline set by Republican state officials who said they would challenge DACA in court unless the administration rescinded it. Administration officials argued the program was on flimsy legal footing — and said that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would have thrown it into far more chaos than phasing it out. After Trump's announcement, attorneys general in New York and California said they were prepared to seek legal action against his decision.
This story was updated Sept. 5 at 8:10 p.m. with more information.