WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration said Friday it still has not decided the fate of a program protecting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation, despite a statement a day earlier that the program will continue.
The mixed signals reflect the political sensitivities behind the Obama administration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. As a candidate who put tough immigration policies at the core of his campaign, Donald Trump denounced the program as an "illegal amnesty" and said he would immediately end it.
Since taking office, Trump has expressed empathy for the participants often called "dreamers," many of whom have no memory of living anywhere but the United States. Cancelling the program could mean trying to deport more than 787,000 people who identified themselves to the government in exchange for temporary protection.
The Homeland Security Department said Thursday that the program would "remain in effect."
That statement was included at the end of an announcement of the cancellation of a related Obama program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, which would have protected the immigrant parents of U.S. citizens. A court had blocked the DAPA program and it has never been implemented.
In reference to DAPA, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Friday that the policy for immigrant parents had "languished in limbo" for several years. "My action yesterday was just a little housecleaning," he said. The policy affecting children, he noted, remains in force. "DACA has not changed."
Following news reports that the DACA program would continue, and reactions on both sides of the immigration debate, administration officials said Friday afternoon that no final decision had been made.
"The future of the DACA program continues to be under review with the administration," Jonathan Hoffman, an assistant secretary for public affairs at Homeland Security, said in a statement. He added that while only Congress can decide the fate of these immigrants, Trump has said the issue needs to be handled "with compassion and with heart."
DACA was intended to be a stopgap measure to protect young immigrants while Congress worked on a broader immigration overhaul. Such legislation has not materialized.
While DACA doesn't offer a legal immigration status, a path to citizenship and or any permanent protections, it does provide approved immigrants with a valuable work permit good for two years at a time. The protections are revocable at any time if an immigrant runs afoul of the law or becomes a threat to public safety or national security.
Trump has made immigration enforcement a top priority and has vowed to continue a crackdown on those living in the U.S. illegally or trying to sneak into the country. Arrests of immigrants inside the U.S. have increased under the Trump administration, but deportations are slightly down as fewer people have been caught crossing the Mexican border into the United States illegally.
DACA has been the greatest exception to Trump's tough approach on immigration. In an Associated Press interview in April, Trump said his administration is "not after the dreamers, we are after the criminals" and said, "The dreamers should rest easy."
Continuation of the DACA program had won widespread praise from critics of Trump's overall approach to immigration.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said keeping DACA in place was "common decency" and expressed relief that the dreamers "now have the certainty they deserve." Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said continuing the program would "maintain protection for the thousands of talented young Mexicans enrolled."
Guadalupe Vidal, 32, a New York college student who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 6, said she was thankful after hearing about Thursday's statement that the program would continue. But she said she would like a path to citizenship
"Right now it's OK, but what can happen in the future? He still has four years to go," she said.
As with DACA, Trump had promised to end the program affecting parents of U.S. citizens and residents. His move to do so was largely symbolic. The program has been blocked by a court since 26 states challenged its legality in 2015.
Still, it gave Trump a chance to claim he was following through on one campaign pledge, even as he wasn't delivering on another.
Some Republican lawmakers applauded the step.
"Our nation's immigration laws need to be improved, but Congress has the sole authority — not the president — to listen to the American people and write the law," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Associated Press writers Claudia Torrens in New York, Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.