U.S. President Donald Trump says he, not the officials who work for him, will make the final decision on whether to do away with a law that protects more than 750,000 children of illegal immigrants from deportation.
While visiting Paris Thursday, Trump was questioned about a remark by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was likely illegal.
Speaking to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in a closed-door meeting Wednesday, Kelly told lawmakers that he personally supports the program but thinks it would not stand up to a legal challenge. He declined to say whether the Trump administration would mount such a challenge.
On Thursday, Trump said the decision about whether to challenge the program "is a decision that I make and it's a decision that's very, very hard to make."
The president, while asserting his authority, did not commit to a yes or a no. "There are two sides of a story," he said. "It's always tough."
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump pledged to "immediately end" the program, which is often referred to as DACA. As president, Trump has backed off of that pledge, saying his administration is "not after the dreamers [a nickname given to people who entered the United States illegally as minors], we are after the criminals."
A Homeland Security spokesman, David Lapan, told reporters after Kelly left his meeting without comment that the legal experts Kelly spoke with about the issue "felt that DACA, as it exists, is not legally sustainable."
Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas told the Dallas Morning News that he asked Kelly "very directly whether the administration would defend DACA and he couldn't give me a conclusive answer." More than half of Castro's Texas constituency identifies as Hispanic.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last month threatened to sue the federal government if DACA is not withdrawn by September.
Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said in a statement after Wednesday's hearing, "We have to prepare for the worst and get ready to fight mass deportation." More than half of Gutierrez's constituency describes itself as Hispanic.
While he quoted Kelly as saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not Trump, was in charge of the decision whether to fight DACA, Gutierrez said, "Kelly was basically telling us DACA is facing a death sentence."
The program was first enacted under former President Barack Obama in 2012 and expanded in 2014.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it had received nearly 850,000 applications for DACA status by June 2016.
The Pew Research Center estimates as many as 1.7 million people might be eligible for DACA status.