WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump declared as “dead” on Monday a program that protects immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and pressed Congress to “immediately” pass legislation to secure the U.S. border with Mexico.
Trump, who has taken a hard line toward immigration, said in September he would terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program introduced by his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, but gave the Republican-controlled Congress until March 6 to replace it.
Congress failed to meet that deadline, but courts have ruled the program can remain in place for now.
“DACA is dead because the Democrats didn’t care or act, and now everyone wants to get onto the DACA bandwagon,” the Republican president said in a Twitter post.
Senior administration officials told reporters that legislation was being prepared aimed at helping expedite some deportations of immigrants in the country illegally. They did not provide a timetable for submitting it to Congress and did not say whether provisions to help DACA recipients would be included.
Democrats blamed Trump for the tenuous status of a program that shielded hundreds of thousands of immigrants, often called “Dreamers,” from deportation and gave them work permits.
Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said in a telephone interview: “After the experience of giving this president six different bipartisan options and having him reject them all … I don’t believe we have a reliable partner” in negotiations that are now dormant.
Democrats had offered at one point to fully fund the wall Trump wants along the U.S.-Mexican border, but rescinded the offer in January, accusing the president of reneging on elements of a tentative agreement.
“He walked away – not Democrats,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote on Twitter.
“Congress must immediately pass Border Legislation, use Nuclear Option if necessary, to stop the massive inflow of Drugs and People … Act now Congress, our country is being stolen!” Trump said in another Twitter post.
Congress cannot pass any legislation immediately as lawmakers are on their second week of a spring recess, but taking a tough stance on immigration appeals to Trump’s conservative base.
Senate Republican leaders have ignored previous calls from Trump advocating the so-called nuclear option, which would involve changing Senate rules so Republicans could more easily overcome Democratic opposition to legislation in a chamber they control with a thin majority of 51 out of 100 seats.
Cindy Agustin, 28, a DACA recipient and immigration activist in Chicago, said the impasse over the program was breeding fear and uncertainty.
“It’s frustrating because we’re in limbo right now,” Agustin added.
Trump also reiterated his call for Mexico to stop people from entering the United States, after saying on Sunday he would terminate a major trade accord with Mexico if it did not do more to secure its border with the United States.
The United States is renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
BACK AGAINST THE WALL
Trump made building a border wall – and making Mexico pay for it – one of his top campaign pledges when he ran for president in 2016. Mexico has refused to pay.
In the past, Trump had said he was open to a deal with congressional Democrats in which they would support funding for the border wall in exchange for protection for the Dreamers.
But on Sunday, he indicated that the time had passed, writing on Twitter: “‘Caravans’ coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!”
The mention of a caravan apparently referred to a group of 1,500 men, women and children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who are traveling in a “refugee caravan” organized by the U.S.-based immigration advocacy group Pueblo sin Fronteras, whose Spanish name means People Without Borders.
By traveling together, the immigrants hope to protect themselves from the crime and extortion that makes the route through Mexico toward the U.S. border dangerous. They say some but not all of them will seek asylum if they reach the United States.
“The only person gaming DACA is not in the caravan. He’s in the Oval Office” of the White House, Durbin said referring to Trump.
No immigration deal has materialized in the Republican-controlled Congress despite months of efforts. The Senate considered several immigration proposals in February but rejected all of them, including bipartisan bills and legislation tailored to Trump’s requirements.
In light of Trump’s call for the “nuclear option,” a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted on Monday that Republican senators opposed changing existing rules governing the debate and passage of legislation.
Major legislation usually needs a supermajority to pass the Senate. Without 60 votes in support, the Democratic minority can sink a bill.
Reporting by Richard Cowan and Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Sarah Lynch in Washington and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Will Dunham and and Peter Cooney