U.S. President Donald Trump is eliminating protections for 800,000 unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children, a highly controversial move that will deepen America’s fault lines over immigration and return the issue to the forefront of the nation’s politics.

The Trump administration announced Tuesday that it is rescinding a five-year-old Obama-era policy that allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people to receive renewable work permits and avoid deportation. The protections will begin to expire six months from now, leaving them to face a precarious and uncertain future unless Congress moves to address their situation – something it has repeatedly failed to do.

“I do not favour punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “But we must also recognize that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.” He called the program – known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA – an “executive amnesty” and shifted responsibility for the predicament faced by such young people to lawmakers. “It is time for Congress to act,” he stated.

Tuesday’s decision was the most dramatic move so far in Mr. Trump’s fight against illegal immigration and represents a victory for the nativist faction within his administration. That group includes Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and favours increasing deportations of unauthorized immigrants while also restricting legal immigration.

Undocumented young people who arrived in the country as children are often referred to as “Dreamers,” a reference to a long-stalled piece of legislation – the Dream Act – aimed at resolving their plight. They have received widespread sympathy from across the political spectrum.

Business executives, university presidents, religious leaders and several prominent Republicans had all urged Mr. Trump in recent days to keep the program in place.

Mr. Trump’s decision to end DACA sparked an unusual intervention from former president Barack Obama, who called the move “cruel” and “self-defeating” in a statement. “This is about young people who grew up in America,” Mr. Obama said. “Ultimately, this is about basic decency.”

Mr. Obama instituted the program in 2012 after Congress failed to enact legislation to help young people who had no legal status in the only home many of them had ever known. In the intervening years, DACA has transformed the lives of its recipients, allowing them to pursue university degrees, advance their careers, buy homes and travel abroad. A recent survey found that 97 per cent of DACA recipients were either employed or enrolled in school.

Democrats and immigrant advocates reacted with fury to the administration’s announcement. “This is a defining moment for our country and a defining moment for this President,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Mr. Trump’s decision is “nothing short of hypocrisy, cruelty and cowardice.”

Mr. Trump’s move also provoked a sharp reaction from Mexico, where the majority of Dreamers were born. The Mexican government said it “deeply regrets” the decision and urged U.S. legislators to resolve the uncertainty now facing DACA recipients.

“I am an American and this is my home,” said Maria Praeli, a DACA recipient who arrived in the United States from Peru at the age of 5. “It has been painful to have to plan for my world to be turned upside down,” she said Tuesday, her voice shaking. “To not be able to work … to potentially be deported back to a country I haven’t been to in nearly 20 years.”

The roughly 800,000 DACA recipients will maintain their protected status and ability to work for at least the next six months. Early next year, however, such protections will begin to expire on a rolling basis, putting Dreamers at risk of deportation. Effective immediately, DACA recipients will no longer receive permission to leave and re-enter the country.

The ultimate fate of the DACA recipients now rests with Mr. Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, said on Tuesday that he hopes lawmakers can forge a “permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country.”

Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, and Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois, renewed their appeal to their colleagues on Tuesday to pass the most recent iteration of the Dream Act, which would allow DACA recipients to become permanent residents and eventually citizens.

In 2010, a version of the legislation passed the House but met with a wall of Republican opposition in the Senate. And in 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that incorporated key elements of the Dream Act – but the effort finally failed in the House.

Some Republican lawmakers have floated the idea of using the Dreamers as a bargaining chip. Such a strategy might involve enacting a permanent legislative fix for the Dreamers but only in exchange for Democratic support for building a border wall or other border security measures.

“The problem is we’re headed toward inevitable failure,” said Leon Fresco, a former Justice Department official who helped draft the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill. The largest faction of Republicans will only vote for a legislative fix if Democrats make major concessions in other areas of immigration policy, he asserted. But Democrats are in no mood to do so, Mr. Fresco said.

Still, the furor over the decision to end DACA is just beginning. The program was instituted after years of sustained activism by Dreamers who dared to tell their stories in public for the first time even if it meant risking deportation. In the years since, they have gained allies in their cause and will represent a potent and uncomfortable source of pressure on lawmakers. Protests took place across the United States on Tuesday, including at Trump Tower in New York.

With Tuesday’s announcement, Mr. Trump fulfilled the pledge he made during the presidential campaign to end DACA. Since taking office in January, however, Mr. Trump had voiced sympathy for the Dreamers and promised to treat them “with heart.” He appears to have acted on Tuesday in response to a deadline created in June by 10 state attorneys-general: The officials said they would sue the federal government over DACA if the program was not eliminated by Sept. 5.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Trump once again told reporters that he had “a great love” for DACA recipients. “I have a love for these people, and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” he said.

Later Tuesday, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that he might “revisit this issue” if Congress didn’t act on it – though it is unclear what action he was referring to.

For DACA recipients, Mr. Trump’s claims of affection ring hollow. They point out that Mr. Trump could have kept the program in place and pursued a legislative fix at the same time, if that was indeed his goal.

“I’m fully aware of the political game that’s being played with my life,” said Daichi Tanaka, 20, a student at Harvard University who arrived in the United States at the age of 6 from Japan. DACA allowed Mr. Tanaka to get a driver’s licence, plan a trip outside the country and envision a future beyond the shadows of the U.S. economy. Now everything he has worked for is in doubt.

“It was hard for me to watch,” Mr. Tanaka said of the announcement rescinding DACA on Tuesday. “These are real lives at stake here.”

The Globe and Mail, September 5, 2017