By Michael Hernandez
President Donald Trump has decided to end his predecessor's program to shield from deportation children brought to this country illegally, the nation's top law enforcement official said Tuesday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the decision by claiming the move is in line with the Constitution's division of powers between the executive branch of government and Congress. He said the administration would "begin an orderly, lawful wind down" of the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) program.
"The executive branch, through DACA, deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions," he said at the Justice Department. "Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch."
The attorney general did not take questions from reporters after delivering his statement.
Trump earlier Tuesday called on Congress to "get ready to do your job" in a tweet referencing DACA.
"There can be no path to principled immigration reform if the executive branch is able to rewrite or nullify federal laws at will," Trump said in a statement. "We will resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion – but through the lawful Democratic process – while at the same time ensuring that any immigration reform we adopt provides enduring benefits for the American citizens we were elected to serve."
Former President Barack Obama strongly condemned Trump's decision, calling it a "cruel" move based on politics, not respect for rule of law.
"Ultimately, 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. It’s about who we are as a people – and who we want to be," he said in a statement.
There will now be a six-month period in which Congress can pass a DACA replacement before the administration stops issuing new permits.
The 2012 stopgap program allowed those who came to the U.S. illegally under the age of 16 to attain legal status for a renewable two-year term. Former President Barack Obama implemented the policy after Congress failed to pass immigration reform.
An estimated 800,000 recipients benefit from the program, and are allowed to work legally in the U.S.
Some Republican state officials warned they would challenge the DACA program in court if the Trump administration did not rescind the program by Tuesday.
But some lawmakers also warned Trump against doing so.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said Friday that Trump should refrain from rescinding the program, saying instead Congress should work to "fix" the program rather than author a replacement.
Republicans have often struggled to unite around a solution to shortcomings in the U.S. immigration system, and the party is struggling to appeal to the U.S.'s growing Latino demographic.
But Senator Lindsey Graham said he is supportive of Trump's decision, adding that lawmakers "will work to find a legislative solution" to the problems faced by DACA recipients, often known as "Dreamers".
"I have always believed DACA was a presidential overreach," he said in a statement. "However, I equally understand the plight of the Dream kids who -- for all practical purposes -- know no country other than America."
Only about 30 percent of Hispanics have voted for Republican candidates in the last three presidential elections, and former Republican Party head Reince Priebus has consistently urged his party to engage Latinos.
But when the Republican Party nominated Trump, who infamously called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "criminals" last year, those efforts were dealt a major blow.
Outside of the White House, hundreds gathered in opposition to Trump's action, calling it a move that further heightens divisions in the country.
“This isn’t what our country is about,” said Vickie Sealey, a 58-year-old resident of neighboring Alexandria, Virginia. “Throughout it’s history we’ve always found a way to allow people to flourish and become Americans, and this is so contrary to anything I’ve been brought up to believe in.”
For Sharice Davids, a 37-year-old Ho Chunk Native American from Wisconsin, Trump's action signaled a further commitment to dividing the nation.
“As an indigenous person from this land, it makes me sad that our country has progressed to where it’s at right now when it seemed like we were starting to move to a more unified country,” she said.
Hundreds in New York City marched to the Trump Tower in protest. Met with police presence around the venue, the crowds pooled over 5th Ave & 57th St., some sitting down in a diagonal line across the intersection.
The nearly 20 protesters who sat down on the road were arrested one by one by the officers as the larger group and members of the media were forced to retreat to the pavement.
Jonathan Escalona, 22, has been in the U.S. for a decade after arriving from Mexico, and works as a food runner. He was able to enroll in the DACA only four months ago after a one-and-a-half-year effort.
"I just got it, now they are trying to take it away from me. I don't think it's fair," Escalona told Anadolu Agency. "I didn't do anything, I have no record, no nothing."
Jonathan's older brother Fidel, 28, said they would resist the White House move.
"It was an opportunity to get a license, get a better education. It opened to us the doors of the world; we came out of the shadows," he said.
"And now they are chasing us away, pushing us back. We are going to be fighting."
Fidel added that one of their friends, Alvaro Aguilar, was arrested this morning during the protest.
"He was arrested fighting for DACA. That makes us very proud of him."
*Anadolu Agency photographer Samuel Corum and correspondent Canberk Yuksel contributed to this report from Washington and New York, respectively.