Top administration officials told Congress on Tuesday that illegal immigrant Dreamers should be granted a full pathway to citizenship, seemingly contradicting President Trump, who said last month that citizenship wasn’t on the table.
With just two days to go before the final deadline for Dreamers to renew protections under the Obama-era deportation amnesty program known as DACA, officials were on Capitol Hill to defend their handling of the situation.
They said that with the exception of Puerto Ricans affected by hurricanes, the Oct. 5 renewal deadline will remain in place and that it’s up to Congress to figure out more permanent protections.
Michael Dougherty, assistant homeland security secretary for strategy and policy, said the nearly 700,000 Dreamers protected by DACA deserve to be made secure.
“They’re a benefit to the country, as are many immigrants coming in,” he said. “They are a valuable contribution to our society. We need to regularize their status through some legal means.”
Pressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, about whether that status should stop short of citizenship, Mr. Dougherty said citizenship has to be available to Dreamers.
“Creating second-class citizens or people who are never able to naturalize is not a good model,” he said.
He added that Mr. Trump shares that view.
But just last month Mr. Trump, explaining what he was looking for in a deal from Congress, seemed to rule out citizenship rights.
“We’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here,” Mr. Trump said after meeting with top Democrats to talk about a path forward.
Mr. Trump also expressed concern about whether the newly legalized immigrants would be able to petition for their parents — often the ones who brought them to the U.S. illegally — to eventually gain legal status, thereby benefiting from their illegal activity.
“CHAIN MIGRATION cannot be allowed to be part of any legislation on Immigration!” the president tweeted.
The Trump officials demurred on that question Tuesday, however, saying they would let Congress figure it out.
“I’d leave that to you. We’re happy to help in any way we can,” Mr. Dougherty said.
After the hearing, Tyler Q. Houlton, deputy press secretary at the Homeland Security Department, said Mr. Dougherty wasn’t speaking for the administration or Mr. Trump.
“The White House will be issuing its priorities for immigration reform in the coming week,” Mr. Houlton said. “The Department of Homeland Security is a law enforcement agency, and our focus remains enforcing U.S. law and protecting the citizens of the United States.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill said they are looking for the president to propose the kinds of changes that would head off another surge of illegal immigration.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, suggested border security, cleaner laws related to deportation and mandatory use by businesses of E-Verify, the voluntary federal program that allows businesses to check potential hires’ work status.
“If everybody’s reasonable, we can reach a solution,” Mr. Grassley said.
Administration officials insisted that they didn’t have much choice in ending the previous administration’s DACA program and said the six-month phaseout was the most humane option.
With Texas promising to sue to stop DACA in the same courts that in 2015 halted a broader Obama amnesty, Trump officials said it was either do an “orderly wind-down” or else risk a judge cutting off the program immediately.
Under the phaseout, all current two-year permits will be honored until they expire. Anyone whose permit expires before March 5 has until Thursday to apply for a two-year renewal.
Democrats pleaded for an extension of the Thursday deadline, saying thousands of Dreamers won’t have had enough time to gather paperwork or scrounge the nearly $500 filing fee required to reapply.
They also rejected the kind of list of security measures Mr. Grassley said he wants to see as part of a bill.
“If Republicans continue to insist on measures outside of the Dream Act and sensible border security that excludes the wall, they’re going to risk ruining a bipartisan agreement to protect the Dreamers,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
In addition to the administration officials, also testifying Tuesday were Denisse Rojas Marquez, an illegal immigrant Dreamer currently protected by DACA, and Bill Hartzell, whose grandmother-in-law was slain by an 18-year-old illegal immigrant in Nebraska in 2013.
Ms. Marquez, who was brought to the U.S. as an infant and is now a medical school student in New York, said she lives in fear of being deported and having her life goal of becoming a doctor derailed.
“DACA lifted me out of the shadows, in every sense possible,” she said.
Mr. Hartzell, though, recounted the bedroom scene of the 93-year-old woman everyone knew as “Gram” — herself part of the wave of Italian immigrants in the 20th century — after she was beaten and raped by an illegal immigrant. He said her blood was spattered on every square foot of the ceiling and walls.
Mr. Hartzell said allowing illegal immigrants to remain puts Americans in danger.
“When you go home tonight, or this weekend, and gather with your families around the dining room table, why don’t you go ahead and decide which child, parent or grandparent you will be willing to sacrifice so that others here illegally can realize their dreams,” he said.
During questions, lawmakers ignored Mr. Hartzell and instead asked Ms. Marquez about her fears of deportation once her DACA status is gone.