The Trump administration on Tuesday declared the Obama-era DACA program unconstitutional and ordered a phaseout, giving Congress six months to devise a permanent solution for 800,000 young adult illegal immigrant Dreamers who could be at risk of deportation.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the decision, saying he didn’t see a way to defend Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals against a legal challenge. He recommended revoking the program, and President Trump accepted the decision.
Mr. Trump said he now expects Congress to pass legislation that will “work out very well” for Dreamers.
But critics, including congressional Democrats, immigrant rights advocates, business lobbies and a host of liberal interest groups, called Mr. Trump’s decision cruel. Former President Barack Obama, who created the program in 2012, accused his successor of betraying the American spirit.
Mr. Trump’s phaseout does not mean immediate deportations, and those who hold DACA permits will be able to serve out the remainder of their two-year legal status. Some will even be eligible to apply for two-year renewals over the next month.
But no first-time applications will be approved, and even those already protected by DACA said they still face uncertainty in their jobs, schools or other aspects of life.
Mr. Sessions defended the phaseout as the legal and humane choice, saying Mr. Obama’s policy broke the law and courts would have struck it down once it was firmly challenged.
He said revoking DACA was a step toward restoring order within the immigration system.
“To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest, we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. It’s just that simple,” Mr. Sessions said at the Justice Department. “That is an open-borders policy, and the American people have rightly rejected that.”
DACA grants a two-year stay of deportation and offers a work permit, which in turn entitles illegal immigrants to a Social Security number, a driver’s license and tax benefits. In some states, it also earns in-state tuition and even financial aid at public colleges. The permits can be renewed, and tens of thousands of illegal immigrants are on their third round.
“Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch,” Mr. Sessions said.
Under the phaseout plan, only those whose DACA status will expire by March 5 will be able to apply for renewals. They must file renewal applications by Oct. 5 to be considered.
The announcement will likely set up a rush for renewals from tens of thousands of Dreamers.
Homeland Security Department officials said DACA status will expire for approximately 150,000 illegal immigrants by March 5. It was unclear how many of those had renewal requests pending, but officials said 55,258 people whose status would expire by December have submitted renewal requests.
Mr. Trump allowed the Justice and Homeland Security departments to announce the decision, but he issued a lengthy statement blaming the Obama administration’s immigration actions for spurring “a humanitarian crisis,” enticing waves of unaccompanied minors from Central America to sneak across the Mexican border into the U.S.
He linked the surge of minors to gang violence, saying some young people went on to become members of MS-13. He said a failure to enforce federal immigration law has led to lower wages and higher unemployment for American workers.
Mr. Trump chided Mr. Obama for repeatedly saying he didn’t have the power to grant a broad categorical exemption from deportation, before reversing himself and doing so.
“There can be no path to principled immigration reform if the executive branch is able to rewrite or nullify federal laws at will,” Mr. Trump said.
However, Mr. Trump seemed to make a similar threat Tuesday evening on Twitter.
“Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!” he wrote, without specifying what a “revisit” would mean.
The administration was facing a Sept. 5 deadline set by Texas and other Republican-led states that have said they would challenge DACA in court unless the president phased out the program. The case would have gone to a judge who already ruled a similar 2014 program, known as DAPA, illegal.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Mr. Trump made the right call in canceling the program, and he moved late Tuesday to dismiss the lawsuit he was using as a prod.
“Our lawsuit was always about the rule of law, not the wisdom of any particular immigration policy,” Mr. Paxton said.
Mr. Obama, however, said his policy was legal and good for the country.
“Let’s be clear: The action taken today isn’t required legally,” Mr. Obama said. “Kicking them out won’t lower the unemployment rate or lighten anyone’s taxes or raise anybody’s wages.”
When their DACA permits expire, Dreamers will again be eligible for deportation — though Homeland Security officials said they will remain low priorities for deportation unless they commit serious crimes or are otherwise deemed security risks.
DACA recipients will also lose access to work permits, though it’s unclear whether the federal government plans to step up law enforcement operations targeting businesses that employ illegal immigrants.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on any plans but said ICE Homeland Security Investigations continues to employ a comprehensive work-site enforcement strategy that “focuses on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers.”
Groups that want stricter immigration enforcement cheered the announcement as progress toward finding a long-term solution.
“The winding-down period announced today will not only give DACA recipients time to get their affairs in order, but also gives Congress a unique opportunity to re-engage in the immigration debate,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Congress should seize this opportunity to come together and forge these much-needed reforms in our nation’s immigration policy.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said he was hopeful that Congress will come to a 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.”
Democrats, though, said they want Congress to quickly pass a stand-alone bill granting a pathway to citizenship to Dreamers.
Immigrant rights groups were considering their legal options to stop Mr. Trump.
Attorneys for a DACA recipient who was brought to the U.S. when he was 7 asked a Brooklyn judge on Tuesday to allow them to amend an existing lawsuit to challenge Mr. Trump’s actions on grounds that they violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
State attorneys general for New York, Washington and California also have threatened to take legal action to defend the DACA program.
Opponents of the Trump administration’s actions worried that the cancellation of DACA would sow chaos and fear among immigrant communities.
“Ending DACA will devastate the lives of young men and women who have essentially known no home other than America,” said Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The president should be supporting efforts to create a legal path to allowing Dreamers to stay — not kicking them to the curb.”
At the same time the Justice Department was announcing the DACA revocation, immigrant rights activists rallied outside the White House and in major cities across the country. Protesters were arrested outside Trump Tower in New York City.
While Mr. Trump said DACA recipients would not be targeted for deportation unless they were gang members or criminals, many immigrant rights groups were concerned that information DACA recipients turned over to the federal government to receive benefits would now be used against them.
To be eligible for DACA, recipients cannot have any serious criminal records, so Homeland Security officials said they are unlikely to be the focus of deportation efforts.
“Very little has changed for our enforcement posture,” said a Homeland Security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief reporters ahead of the announcement.
Current law still calls for illegal immigrants to be deported, however, so unless the law is changed, anyone without authorization to be in the country could be kicked out.
While some immigrant rights groups worried that personal information turned over by Dreamers might now be used to track them down once their DACA status expires, Homeland Security officials said an Obama-era prohibition generally bans the sharing of DACA recipients’ information with deportation officers unless there is a significant law enforcement or national security interest.
Officials also said they will stop granting a shortcut pathway to citizenship to Dreamers through a loophole known as “advance parole.” Under advance parole, Dreamers could get permission to leave and re-enter the U.S. and, because of a quirk of law, when they re-enter they could apply for permanent legal status as long as they have another qualifying relationship.
Tens of thousands of DACA recipients have already applied for the advance parole loophole, and several thousand have earned a pathway to citizenship, according to statistics the government released last week.
A department official said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will cancel all pending requests for advance parole from Dreamers and refund the money for those applications.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.