WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday began dismantling Barack Obama's program protecting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, declaring he loves the "dreamers" who could face deportation but insisting it's up to Congress, not him, to address their plight.
Trump didn't specify what he wanted done, essentially sending a six-month time bomb to his fellow Republicans in Congress who have no consensus on how to defuse it.
The president tried to have it both ways with his compromise plan: fulfilling his campaign promise to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, while at the same time showing compassion for those who would lose deportation protection and the ability to work legally in the U.S. New applications will be rejected and the program will be formally rescinded, but the administration will continue to renew existing two-year work permits for the next six months, giving Congress time to act.
"I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly," Trump told reporters.
Yet at the same time, the White House distributed talking points to members of Congress that included a dark warning: "The Department of Homeland Security urges DACA recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States."
Although Trump's announcement had been anticipated in recent days, it still left young people covered by the DACA program reeling.
"You just feel like you are empty," said a sobbing Paola Martinez, 23, who came to the U.S. from Colombia and recently graduated with a civil engineering degree from Florida International University
"I honestly can't even process it right now," said Karen Marin, an immigrant from Mexico, who was in a physics class at Bronx Community College when the news broke. "I'm still trying to get myself together."
Their predicament now shifts to Congress, which has repeatedly tried — and failed — to pass immigration legislation.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president would look to Congress to pass a "responsible immigration reform package" with money to control the border with Mexico and better protect American workers' jobs — along with protecting "dreamers."
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said if Trump truly wants a comprehensive immigration reform package, including a solution for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, he's certain to be disappointed. Congress tried that and failed in 2013, and GOP leaders immediately ruled it out Tuesday.
"Guaranteed failure," Cornyn said.
If the goal is a more incremental package that combines a solution for the "dreamers" with steps such as visa reforms and enhanced border security, "there may be a deal to be had," Cornyn said.
Sanders' blunt warning to lawmakers skeptical they can come up with a plan: "If they can't, then they should get out of the way and let somebody else take their job that can actually get something done."
The DACA program was created by former President Obama by executive action in 2012, when it became clear Congress would not act to address the young immigrants' plight in legislation that was dubbed the "Dream Act." Trump ran his campaign as an immigration-hard liner, labeling DACA as illegal "amnesty" and pledging to repeal it immediately. But he shifted his approach after the election, expressing sympathy for the "dreamers," many of whom were brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were very young and have no memories of the counties where they were born.