Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said the program has shielded more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation. The correct number is 787,580 undocumented immigrants, as of March, the most recent data available. The story has been corrected.
Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in a closed-door meeting Wednesday that an initiative that grants work permits to nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants may not survive a looming legal challenge.
Kelly declined to take questions after the meeting, but his spokesman said the secretary told the lawmakers that the Obama-era program, which shields immigrants brought to the United States as children, is at risk.
“This is what he’s being told by different attorneys, that if it goes to court it might not survive,” DHS spokesman David Lapan said. If Congress does not pass a bill to protect the program, he added, “they’re leaving it in the hands of the courts to make a decision.”
Kelly’s meeting with the caucus came nearly two weeks after officials from 11 states warned Attorney General Jeff Sessions they would sue the federal government if it does not rescind President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program by Sept. 5.
The officials also want Homeland Security to gradually “phase out” the program by refusing to renew the two-year permits or issue new ones.
Members of the Hispanic caucus said they urged Kelly to support bipartisan legislation known as the Bridge Act that would effectively preserve the DACA program. But they expressed skepticism that the Republican-controlled Congress would pass any law to spare undocumented immigrants from deportation — or that the Trump administration would defend DACA in court.
“Jeff Sessions is going to say, ‘Deport them,’ ” a visibly shaken Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said in English and Spanish, noting that the attorney general had been a fierce opponent of illegal immigration as a senator from Alabama. “If you’re going to count on Jeff Sessions to save DACA, then DACA is ended.”
As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to revoke DACA, which was created in 2012, along with a 2014 executive order that also sought to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Obama signed the orders after failing to persuade the House to pass an immigration bill that would create a path to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
DACA flourished, but the 2014 order, which would have expanded DACA and protected the parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents from deportation, was blocked by a lawsuit filed by Texas and other states.
Last month, Kelly officially rescinded the 2014 order, saying the administration saw no legal path to implementing it. But he left DACA untouched, and his agency has continued to renew work permits and issue new ones through the program, angering Trump’s base.
Texas and the other plaintiff states have said they would drop the lawsuit against the 2014 program if the government rescinds DACA; otherwise, they will amend the lawsuit to target the existing program, as well.
The Trump administration has moved to implement many of the president’s chief campaign promises on immigration, including curtailing refugee arrivals, temporarily banning the entry of certain travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, and detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants.
However, the Trump administration is still struggling to secure congressional support for one of his signature campaign promises: to erect a “big, beautiful” wall on the southern border.
Members of the Hispanic caucus said Kelly told them Wednesday that federal programs that grant Haitians, Salvadorans and Hondurans temporary protected status because of past disasters in their homelands are also at risk of being canceled, or not renewed, by the Trump administration. Haiti and Honduras are set to lose that status in January.
Lapan said Kelly has not made a decision about Haiti or the Central American nations, but he has signaled that the protections could end.