The Trump administration Tuesday formally announced it will end the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals program — also called DACA — putting an expiration date on the legal protections granted to roughly 800,000 people known as "DREAMers," who entered the country illegally as children.
Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke said the administration, facing legal challenges to the program, "chose the least disruptive option," letting the program wind down in six months, and placing the onus on a sharply divided Congress to enact former President Barack Obama's executive action into law.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has provided nearly 800,000 young, unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors temporary protection from deportation and work permits since 2012. An estimated 200,000 DACA recipients live in California.
In a statement, Duke said the administration's decision to terminate DACA "was not taken lightly. The Department of Justice has carefully evaluated the program's constitutionality and determined it conflicts with our existing immigration laws."
The announcement was made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of the policy. He called DACA "unilateral executive amnesty," and said the Obama administration "deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions. Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch." He said DACA "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs."
Sessions added, "We cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. It's just that simple."
Duke said no current beneficiaries will be affected before March 5 of next year. But she said, "No new initial requests or associated applications filed after today will be acted on."
DACA allowed individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children or teens before mid-2007 to apply for protection from deportation and work permits if they met certain requirements. Beneficiaries had to be under the age of 16 upon entering the country; no older than 31 as of June 15, 2012; lived continuously in the U.S. since mid-2007; be enrolled in high school or college, already have a diploma or degree, have a GED certificate or be an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. military; and have no felony criminal convictions, significant misdemeanor convictions, no more than three other misdemeanor convictions or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
California is the state with the highest number of DACA recipients, and reaction statewide has been swift. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-C.A., said in a statement that "Dreamers are Americans in every way except a piece of paper," and that "The consequences of this decision will be devastating."
"It will split up families, force young people back to countries they never knew, and cost our economy billions of dollars. It is heartless," Harris said.
California's Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a press conference Tuesday that he is prepared to sue to defend the DACA program. He said he believes the Trump administration has violated the constitution and federal law in rescinding the program, which he says has been a boon for California's economy and people.
"It is not compassion to pull the rug from underneath [DREAMers] and tell them now that they must go back into the shadows," Becerra said.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), said in a released statement, "ending DACA is cruel and unusual punishment targeting a vulnerable population who has done everything in their power to belong and give back to the only country they know as home."
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), applauded the DACA rollback with a released statement of his own, calling DACA "an unconstitutional abuse of executive authority by President Obama."
"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 reengage in the immigration debate," Stein said.
The program did not provide lawful immigration status. Instead, through what the Obama administration characterized as the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, it granted a deferral from possibly being removed from the U.S. to those who qualified; it also granted work permits. The deferrals and permits were granted for two-year periods and could be renewed for additional two-year periods.
What's next, and how did we get here?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement says its enforcement priorities have not changed. It has no plans to target DACA holders as their permits expire. They will be eligible for deportation but a low priority.
The USCIS generally has not referred cases in which a person's DACA application is denied to immigration enforcement authorities unless the case involves a criminal offense, fraud or a threat to national security or public safety.
The "DREAMers" had been in legal limbo since the start of the current administration. Throughout his campaign, Trump railed against the 2012 executive order signed by President Obama — and pledged to "immediately terminate the policy" once he took office.
But after being sworn in, he expressed some compassion toward DACA recipients. In an interview with ABC News on Jan. 25, Trump said, "They shouldn't be very worried. I do have a big heart. We're going to take care of everybody."
The Obama program was thrown into the center of a looming court battle in late June when a coalition of 10 state attorneys general, led by Texas' Ken Paxton, threatened to sue the Trump administration as early as September 5 if it refused to phase out DACA. They argued that Obama had overstepped his authority in creating and implementing the program. Only Congress has the authority to legislate such a change in U.S. immigration law, they contended.
"[T]he program represents an unconstitutional exercise of legislative power by the Executive Branch," Paxton wrote in an op-ed for USA Today in late July. "Phasing out DACA is about the rule of law, not the wisdom of any particular immigration policy," Paxton also wrote at the time before emphasizing the principle of separation of powers at the heart of the structure of the federal government.
Sessions had advocated for the termination of DACA but, as BuzzFeed reported in March, he was often out-argued by former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who like Trump, wanted to see it preserved.
Trump's decision leaves Congress facing increasing pressure to find a solution for a population that was estimated in 2012 to include as many as 1.8 million immigrants — of which about 800,000 have been granted deferred status under DACA.