WASHINGTON (AP) — With a deadline looming, President Donald Trump remains torn over the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children — a decision that will draw fury no matter what he decides.
Trump railed against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program during his campaign, slamming it as illegal "amnesty." But he changed his tune after the election, calling DACA one of the most difficult issues he's grappled with. The program has given nearly 800,000 people a reprieve from deportations. It has also provided the ability to work legally in the U.S. in the form of two-year, renewable work permits — permits the Trump administration has continued to grant as the president has mulled the issue.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said DACA was still the subject of "a very lengthy review" process. "It's something that's still being discussed and a final decision hasn't been made," she said.
Activists on both sides of the issue — as well as some people close to the White House — strongly expect the president to announce as soon as this week that he will move to dismantle the program, perhaps by halting new applications and renewals.
But others caution that Trump remains torn as he faces a September 5 deadline set by a group of Republican state lawmakers, who are threatening to challenge DACA in court if the administration does not start to dismantle it by then.
To buy more time, administration officials have considered asking the lawmakers to push back their deadline by several months, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter, said such a delay was seen as a chance to avoid forcing a contentious immigration showdown in Congress at the same time lawmakers are trying to pass a budget deal, raise the debt ceiling and provide relief for states devastated by Harvey.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, leading the group threatening to sue, is likely to be consumed by storm recovery efforts in coming months, providing possible cover for the delay.
Trump could also simply ignore the deadline, leaving the matter up to Congress and the courts.
Trump's administration has been split, as usual, between immigration hard-liners such as senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who argues DACA is unconstitutional, and more moderate individuals such as the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, who want to protect the so-called "dreamers," according to people close to the administration.
Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, also urged him to make good on his campaign promise to eliminate the program.
"The White House is deeply split," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal Trump adviser. He said targeting DACA would be a dire mistake for the president, earning the ire of nearly 800,000 people, along with their friends and families.
"To me, it would be utterly irrational to pick a fight over the dreamers," Gingrich said, adding that ending the program would further hamper the president and isolate his administration.
Gingrich said senior Trump aides who believe DACA is unconstitutional were using the lawsuit threat as an "excuse" to push Trump to act. Instead, he said, the president would be wise to let the deadline pass, and call on Congress to approve legislation protecting those covered by the program.
Meanwhile, activists supporting DACA have been mounting a furious lobbying effort, operating phone banks, meeting with lawmakers, sending letters and staging protests to draw attention to the fate of what are undoubtedly the most sympathetic immigrants living in the country illegally. Many came to the U.S. as young children and have no memories of or connection to the countries they were born in.
Trump had been unusually candid about his struggles with the issue.
During a February press conference, Trump said the topic was "a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it's one of the most difficult subjects I have."
"You have some absolutely incredible kids — I would say mostly," he said, adding, "We're going to show great heart."
The decision comes at a fraught time for the president, who finds himself increasingly under fire, with his poll numbers hanging at near-record lows. In the wake of his much-criticized response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and continued questions about his campaign's ties to Russia, Trump is increasingly isolated and concerned about maintaining the loyalty of his core supporters.
"His campaign promise was solid. It was that he was going to end DACA. He didn't say he was going to phase it out. He said he would end it," said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a vocal opponent of the program.
King said he expected Trump to make good on his promise, and he rejected another possible solution: using DACA as a bargaining chip to win funding for Trump's southern border wall or other immigration legislation.
"It would be immoral to trade away our Constitution," he said.
But Mario H. Lopez, president of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Fund, which disagreed with the way the Obama administration implemented the policy, said there were no upsides to punishing people who were brought to the country through no fault of their own.
"Punishing kids for what their parents did is just a bad idea," he said. "It's bad politics, it's bad policy. It's just bad all around."
If permit renewals are put on hold, more than 1,400 recipients will lose their ability to work each day, according to a report by the Center for American Progress and FWD.us, two advocacy groups.
The Obama administration created the DACA program in 2012 as a stopgap way to protect some young immigrants from deportation as it continued to push for a broader immigration overhaul in Congress.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Sadie Gurman contributed to this report.