WASHINGTON -- While President Donald Trump wavered Thursday on whether he will stop shielding from deportation people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, his aides have identified at least two ways to quietly end their protections without his fingerprints.
An executive order has already been drafted to end the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that allows hundreds of thousands of the immigrants to live and work openly in the U.S. Trump used that legal mechanism to great fanfare to expand deportation authority and restrict entry to the U.S.
But with the president showing less willingness to sign such an order, advisers have begun to explore alternatives. Their hunt suggests that the White House is hesitant to publicly target a well-organized group of immigrants who have prominent public backing, including from President Barack Obama, and to whom Trump has shown sympathy.
"DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me," Trump conceded during an East Room news conference Thursday, promising to address the issue "with heart. ... It's one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids."
Trump is caught between two camps. His supporters count the end of deportation protections as a key component of his promise to strengthen immigration enforcement. In campaign speeches, Trump repeatedly promised to end the program on "Day One" of his presidency and called the protections "unconstitutional executive amnesty."
On the other side, a mix of stakeholders, including the 750,000 people who have won work permits, want to see even more immigrants allowed to come out of the shadows. And some Republican strategists are concerned that suspending DACA could energize Latino voters and liberal activists in key congressional districts during the midterm elections next year.
"If he repeals DACA, people will start screaming at him," said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican strategist who heads the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and has advocated within the GOP for a path to legal status for people in the country illegally.
Indeed, immigration agents' arrest last week of a 23-year-old in Washington state who was in the program immediately caused an outcry.
But senior Trump aides are holding fast to their goal of strengthening immigration enforcement, the president's chief campaign promise. They have examined at least two options that would not directly involve Trump, according to two immigration policy advisers to the White House: a lawsuit brought by states, and new legal guidance that details who is a priority for deportation.
Under that option, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vocal critic of deportation relief as a senator, would direct Department of Justice lawyers to review the program, which issues two-year work permits to people who qualify and keeps them from being categorized as deportation priorities.