President Donald Trump has scrapped a program that protects from deportation almost 800,000 young men and women who were brought into the United States illegally as children.
The fate of the children and adults, dubbed the “Dreamers” by Barack Obama when he ensured their safety in the US during his administration, will be decided by a gridlocked Congress within six months.
On Tuesday, the action was announced not by the president but by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program an unconstitutional overreach by Democratic former President Barack Obama. There would be an “orderly, lawful wind-down”, Sessions said.
Trump, via a statement, said: “I do not favour punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents. But we must also recognise that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”
The administration said nobody covered by the program, which provided work permits in addition to deportation protection and primarily benefits Hispanics, would be affected before March 5. Most of the people covered by DACA are in their 20s.
By deferring the actual end of the program, Trump effectively kicked responsibility for the fate of those covered by DACA to his fellow Republicans who control Congress.
Since Trump took office in January, Congress has been unable to pass any major legislation.
The Democratic attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, said a coalition of states planned to file suit in the coming days to defend DACA, and one advocacy group announced its own legal action.
“President Trump’s decision to end DACA is a deeply shameful act of political cowardice and a despicable assault on innocent young people in communities across America,” said Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives.
“This is a sad day for our country,” added Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The “Dreamers” are a fraction of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, most of whom are Hispanic.
Sessions said the action does not mean DACA recipients are “bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way”.
Elaine Duke, acting head of the Homeland Security Department, issued a memo rescinding DACA. The department will provide a limited window – until October 5 – for some DACA recipients whose work permits expire before March 5 to apply to renew those permits.
DACA recipients whose work permits expire will be considered to be in the country and eligible for deportation, but will be a low priority for immigration enforcement, administration officials said.
The administration said the president’s decision was prompted in part by a threat from several Republican state attorneys general, led by Texas, to file legal challenges in federal court if Trump did not act to end DACA.