WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday to rescind a rule that lets people who came to the United States illegally as children remain in the country.
Phasing out the program, which is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, is slated to take six months. During the phase-out period, the Department of Homeland Security will continue reviewing applications that it received before Tuesday’s decision, but will not accept new applications.
At a press conference this morning, Sessions insisted that the wind-down will give Congress time to come up with a plan for how to deal with the people who have taken advantage of the program.
“We firmly believe this is the responsible path,” Sessions said in Washington. “Simply put, if we are to further our goal of strengthening the constitutional order and the rule of law in America, the Justice Department cannot defend this overreach.”
Later Tuesday, President Donald Trump confirmed word out of Homeland Security that the administration has no plans to share data it holds on DACA applicants with immigration officers.
“I have 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,” Trump said in a statement.
Recipients of DACA, often nicknamed Dreamers, are eligible for work permits and must reapply to the program every two years. A senior Department of Homeland Security official said that people who already have DACA protections will not have their status revoked, and that Dreamers whose benefits will expire during the wind-down in the next six months can still apply for renewal. Such applications are due before Oct. 5.
More than 200,000 people are set to have their benefits expire in 2017, with more than 55,000 having already submitted applications for renewal. An additional 275,000 will see their benefits end in 2018, roughly 7,000 of whom have submitted applications for renewal, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.
Sessions said Tuesday that the Trump administration made the decision to rescind the program because it is unlikely to withstand the same legal arguments that caused a federal court in 2015 to block an extension of the program, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents or DAPA.
The attorneys general of 26 states had threatened to challenge DACA in court if the Trump administration did not walk it back by Tuesday.
Sessions recommended the change in policy in a memo on Monday, saying the Obama administration circumvented the traditional legislative process when it enacted the DACA program without Congress passing a law.
“If we were to keep the Obama Administration’s executive amnesty policy, the likeliest outcome is that it would too be enjoined, just as was DAPA,” Sessions said.
As secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, Janet Napolitano created the DACA program in 2012 as a form of prosecutorial discretion. DACA allows people who came to the United States as children remain in the country so long as they meet certain conditions, including attending school and not being convicted of a serious crime.
Immigration advocates criticized the decision on Tuesday, saying it will leave hundreds of thousands of people who have taken advantage of the program in the dark on their status.
“With this move, Trump is fulfilling a very sick white-supremacist scheme developed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others in his administration to terrorize people like my brother, who has DACA and is 23 years old, and thousands of immigrant youth and families like mine around the country,” Cristina Jimenez, executive director of United We Dream, told reporters on Tuesday.
Marielena Hincapie, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said her organization is planning on filing a lawsuit challenging the repeal “within hours.”
Hincapie told reporters the center is still receiving information on the administration’s decision, making it difficult to say even now what exactly the challenge will look like.
Until the courts get involved, all attention will be on Congress, where lawmakers have crafted a number of bills that would write various levels of DACA’s protections into law. Loose coalitions of Republicans and Democrats have fallen behind some of these bills, though it is not yet clear whether any has the support necessary to clear Congress.
Advocates have thrown their support behind the Dream Act, a bipartisan bill that would give conditional permanent resident status to DACA recipients and other people who meet certain criteria, allowing them to receive lawful permanent resident status if they attend college, get a job or join the military.
The bill would also create a pathway to citizenship. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., drafted the bill with nine co-sponsors, some of whom like Sen. Dianne Feinstein are key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In addition to Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, the bill is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who chairs the committee, did not endorse a specific plan but said Congress should get to work on an immigration-reform bill.
“Any legislative solution is going to have to be a compromise that addresses the status of those who have been unlawfully brought to this country and upholds the rule of law,” Grassley said in a statement. “President Trump should continue to work with Congress to pass reforms through the legislative process that encourage lawful immigration.”
Trump meanwhile repeated his endorsement of the RAISE Act on Tuesday. The bill would dramatically cut legal immigration levels but has not gained widespread support in Congress.
“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 said in a statement.
Further complicating the prospects of any immigration plan clearing Congress is a packed legislative schedule lawmakers face before the end of the month, when they will have to agree to a government-funding package and a deal to raise the debt ceiling.