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Former DHS secretaries Chertoff, Napolitano and Johnson warn Congress over ‘dreamers’ deadline

A woman holds up a sign in support of the Obama administration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, during a rally outside the White House in August. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

A trio of bipartisan former Homeland Security secretaries is warning Congress that time is quickly running out for a legislative solution to protect nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” from possible deportation.

President Trump has set a March 5 deadline for Congress to act before the bulk of work permits provided under an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) begin to expire. The Trump administration announced the termination of the program in September, calling it unconstitutional because President Barack Obama established the program through executive authority to shield immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

Now, Michael Chertoff, who headed the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, and Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson, who served under Obama, are warning lawmakers that they must strike a deal this month or risk running out of time. Even if Congress were to act this month, they cautioned, it would mean a massive undertaking for DHS to be able to launch a new administrative program to accommodate dreamers who are eligible to seek permanent legal status.

“The realistic deadline for successfully establishing a Dreamers program in time to prevent large-scale loss of work authorization and deportation protection is only weeks away,” the former secretaries wrote in a two-page letter Wednesday.

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The letter comes as White House officials travel to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional leaders to continue negotiations over the fate of the DACA program and an impasse over the federal budget. Lawmakers face a Jan. 19 deadline to pass a spending resolution to keep the government open, and some are suggesting that a DACA fix should be included. But it's not clear what conditions Trump, who has said a deal on the dreamers is predicated on building a border wall and curbing legal immigration, is demanding to support such an agreement.

Napolitano was the architect of DACA, bringing the concept to the Obama White House in early 2012 as she sought ways to streamline an ever-growing backlog of immigration cases. Under the program, which Obama announced in June of that year, those who meet the criteria are provided renewable, two-year work permits allowing them to remain in the country without fear of deportation.

In 2015, Obama and Johnson attempted to create a similar program for millions of undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens, but a federal judge in Texas blocked it after Texas and 25 other states sued, calling it unconstitutional.

In their letter, the former Homeland Security secretaries noted that it took DHS 90 days to create the initial DACA program and that a 45-day timeline between mid-January and the March 5 deadline set by Trump would be a tight window for the agency to create a new administrative program.

Such a shortened timeline “is very aggressive, but should be seen as an actual best-case deadline based on our collective experience with these administrative and security requirements,” they wrote.