WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump took action Tuesday to strip away protections for roughly 800,000 people brought into the country illegally as children, leaving it to Congress to write a law to resolve their plight.
Trump's long-awaited decision to get rid of the Obama-era program for so-called dreamers fit a pattern of his young presidency: As with other signature campaign promises on infrastructure, overhauling taxes and health insurance, he offered little guidance on what exactly he wanted done and left it to a polarized Congress to fill in the details.
Nor did Trump himself announce the action, which polls show is opposed by a majority of Americans. He left that to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of illegal immigration. The president later issued a lengthy written statement and responded briefly to reporters' shouted questions about the dreamers at an unrelated event.
"I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly," Trump said.
"And I can tell you," he added, "speaking to members of Congress, they want to be able to do something and do it right. And really we have no choice. We have to be able to do something, and I think it's going to work out very well, and long term it's going to be the right solution."
On Tuesday night, the president tweeted: "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!"
For Republicans in Congress, however, swiftly approving any immigration legislation is virtually impossible given the divisiveness of the issue within the party — as more than a decade of failed attempts has shown. Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, are already struggling to advance a stalled agenda and must-pass budget bills with time running out.
Congressional leaders, who met with Trump at the White House ostensibly about still-unwritten tax legislation, only tentatively committed to addressing Trump's demand on immigration. House Speaker Paul Ryan expressed "hope" for a solution while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Congress "will continue working" on it.
The legislative uncertainty created by the president's action translated to even greater personal uncertainty for those affected, sparking protests across the country.
Under Trump's action, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, would continue six months, to March 5.
Beginning in March, hundreds of people every day will begin to lose their ability to lawfully hold a job, buy a home, receive student loans and join the U.S. military, among other benefits, unless Congress acts before then. The government will continue to honor work permits for DACA recipients that extend beyond March.
In doing so, Trump is fulfilling a campaign pledge to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Barack Obama established in 2012, while also attempting to shift responsibility to Congress for the fallout of his decision to put dreamers in jeopardy of being deported.
The move advances a broader effort by the Trump administration to ratchet up immigration enforcement with the long-term goal of reducing the number of immigrants in the country, an outcome senior Trump advisers see as helping to raise wages and open up jobs for U.S. citizens.
Trump wrestled with the decision, aides said, but ultimately decided to unravel the program and call on Congress to fix it.
Compounding the challenge, Trump wants Congress to include money for tougher immigration enforcement and reducing the levels of legal immigration in a comprehensive bill, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday, but has stopped short of detailing specifics on what should be in the bill.
"It is important that the White House clearly outline what kind of legislation the president is willing to sign," said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who worked closely with Democrats on a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. "We have no time to waste on ideas that do not have the votes to pass or that the president won't sign."
Several Democrats, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, called for quick action to restore the DACA program.
"It will break families and drive many underground, out of work and into poverty," Cardin said of the president's decision. "Families should not be ripped apart to abide by irrelevant political rhetoric."
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, described the decision as "an insult to decency and common sense."
Legal opposition to Trump's ending DACA has already begun to amass. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, said he is working with other state attorneys general "to build a strong case" that the move will hurt the economies and educational systems of their states.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat, said his office is "evaluating all potential options to protect these DREAMers and their families."
While several thousand people a week would begin losing their legal right to work in the U.S. as of March 6, because current two-year permits will be renewed until then, the program would not be fully phased out until March 2020.
In the meantime, the administration will continue to renew two-year work permits as they expire but will stop accepting new applications for the program.
DACA shields the dreamers — a politically attractive group for whom Trump in recent months often has expressed sympathy, despite his campaign vow.
"I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents," Trump said in a statement.
"We must also recognize that we are a nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws," he Trump said, adding that he wanted "a gradual process" to "provide a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act."
Tossing the issue to Congress could create a serious split among Republican lawmakers. Many Republican leaders, including Ryan, have said they favor a measure to give permanent legal status to the dreamers. But many rank-and-file Republicans oppose the idea, which is why past measures failed in Congress, prompting Obama to issue his executive order in 2012.
Ryan called Obama's order perhaps "well-intentioned" but "a clear abuse of executive authority," and said, "It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president's leadership, will be able to find 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."
Sessions said that Obama's action in creating the program went beyond his legal authority, and the Department of Homeland Security "should begin an orderly and lawful wind down."
Obama's DACA order was an "unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch," said Sessions, who has been one of the administration's leading opponents of the program and a vocal critic of immigration generally going back through his prior years in the Senate.
"The Department of Justice cannot defend this overreach" in court, he added. Several Republican state attorneys general have threatened to challenge the program in court if the Trump administration did not take action to dismantle DACA by Tuesday.
"We cannot admit everyone who would like to come here," Sessions added. "The nation must set and enforce a limit on how many immigrants we accept each year, and that means all cannot be accepted."
Obama, in a rare critique of his successor, strongly disputed Sessions' reasoning in a statement on his Facebook page. He wrote that his administration relied "on the well-established legal principle of prosecutorial discretion, deployed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike."
He did so, Obama wrote, after Congress ignored his pleas for a legislative solution to shield the dreamers from deportation — "because it made no sense to expel talented, driven, patriotic young people from the only country they know solely because of the actions of their parents."
Trump's action, Obama said, "isn't required legally. It's a political decision, and a moral question."
"Ultimately," he said, "this is about basic decency. This is about whether we are a people who kick hopeful young strivers out of America, or whether we treat them the way we'd want our own kids to be treated."
The Citizenship and Immigration Services agency will continue to process all renewal applications and first-time applications received before Trump's rescission. As of Aug. 20, 106,341 cases were in the pipeline, including more than 34,000 people applying for a first-time grant.
For the more than 200,000 people whose grants expire between now and March 5, the agency is providing a one-month window, until Oct. 5, to apply for a renewal. More than 55,000 of those people have submitted requests for renewal.
An additional 275,344 people have deferrals that will end during 2018, and 321,920 others have protection that will lapse during the first eight months of 2019.
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Trump repeatedly promised to end his predecessor's program during an election campaign in which he vowed more broadly to crack down on those in the country illegally, including longtime residents.
But since taking office, Trump has balked at fulfilling that pledge against dreamers, professing a sympathy for their situation that was encouraged by his daughter Ivanka Trump.
In April, he said in an interview with the Associated Press that people protected from deportation under DACA could "rest easy."
Then in July, aboard Air Force One en route to Paris for Bastille Day celebrations, Trump told reporters he was struggling with what to do about the program.
"It's a decision that's very, very hard to make," he said. "I really understand the situation now. I understand the situation very well. What I'd like to do is a comprehensive immigration plan. But our country and political forces are not ready yet.
"There are two sides of a story," he added. "It's always tough."
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze and Washington Bureau reporter Lisa Mascaro contributed to this article.