(This story was updated Sept. 5 at 6:15 p.m.)
WASHINGTON — The federal government will “wind down” an Obama-era program that shields some unauthorized immigrants, including dozens of Vermont residents, from deportation.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, initiated by executive order in 2012 by the Obama administration, allows some people who came to the United States as children to defer deportation for two years and get a work permit.
Unless Congress acts to continue the program, current DACA recipients will cease to be protected from deportation actions in six months. The Department of Homeland Security will cease considering new applicants to the program immediately.
Almost 788,000 have been accepted into the program nationally since 2012, according to numbers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In Vermont, 42 people have been approved under DACA. More may have renewed their DACA status while living in Vermont.
Martha Herrera applied for DACA in 2012, shortly after it was initiated.
Herrera came to the United States at age 15 with her siblings. Now 27, she lives in Vermont and said the program has allowed her to have more stability and access to better-paying jobs over the last half decade.
This year, when her father was ill, she was able to travel home to Mexico to see her parents for the first time in 12 years.
“DACA has meant that we have finally felt welcome here, that we can feel at home in this country where we live,” Herrera said, speaking through translator Will Lambek.
A member of the advisory board of the activist group Migrant Justice, Herrera said she has family members, cousins and friends who will also be affected if the program is terminated.
“It’s something terrible. It’s something sad. But it’s also something that’s going to give us strength,” Herrera said.
According to Lambek, of Migrant Justice, farmworkers and children of farmworkers in Vermont are DACA recipients. The group is also aware of college and university students in Vermont who are part of the program.
The Department of Justice review of the program was prompted by a threat from a group of state attorneys general to challenge DACA in court if the federal government didn’t rescind the executive order that created it by Sept. 5.
In remarks about the department’s conclusion Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the review determined that DACA is in conflict with current immigration law.
Sessions said the Obama administration’s creation of the program was an “unconstitutional exercise of authority of the executive branch.”
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump said he does not “favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents.” However, he said Obama “bypassed” Congress to create the program
“It is now time for Congress to act!” Trump said.
Though the program is not widely used in Vermont — the Green Mountain State has the lowest number of DACA recipients in the country — elected officials have fiercely defended it.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., called the administration’s threat to rescind protection to DACA recipients “cruel,” but said he is optimistic Congress will act.
“This is not about securing our borders,” he said. “This is about inflicting unspeakable pain” on people who are serving their communities.
Welch said he received a letter from one person who received DACA approval who, after a family member’s diagnosis, decided to go into cancer research. He went to the University of Vermont but was initially barred from going to medical school because of his immigration status.
Then, with DACA, he was able to pursue his medical degree, Welch said. Now, his “life of service and commitment” is at risk.
Welch said he believes there could be bipartisan support in Congress to take up and pass legislation to continue the program.
“We have a window here for six months when we can do the right thing,” Welch said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., slammed the administration’s move on the program, calling the president “as heartless as he is uninformed.”
“We live in an unprecedented time when our president seeks to divide us, not to unite us,” Leahy said in a statement. “He rallies his dwindling supporters by exploiting fear and resentment, marginalizing those who are vulnerable and even those who risk their lives for our country and communities. It is shameful and far beneath the office he holds.”
Leahy helped shepherd an immigration reform bill through the Senate in 2013, but the measure died in the House. He also called for congressional action in the wake of the administration’s announcement about DACA, noting that some Republican legislators have voiced their support for the program.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., condemned the administration’s decision on DACA in a video statement.
“It is no secret that I disagree with Donald Trump on virtually every issue,” Sanders said. “But I have to say that his decision regarding DACA is the ugliest and most cruel decision made by a president of the United States in the modern history of this country.”
Sanders said Congress now needs to “move as quickly as we possibly can” to pass legislation.
Trump's decision on DACA is the ugliest and most cruel decision ever made by a president of the U.S. in the modern history of this country. pic.twitter.com/3k64uuo2XM
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 5, 2017
Vermont officials on both sides of the aisle spoke out against the administration’s decision.
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said the decision to end the program is “unfortunate” and that he hopes Congress will “take action and continue this policy, which I believe provides long-term benefits to American culture, the economy and the prosperity of our country.”
Attorney General TJ Donovan, a Democrat, said in a statement the country has “an obligation” to honor the promises made when the DACA program was initiated. He said his office is reviewing the administration’s decision and the impact it will have on Vermont, but he stopped short of saying whether he would consider litigation.
The administration’s announcement prompted responses from Vermont’s higher education institutions.
Vermont State Colleges System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding released a statement early Tuesday afternoon calling for the continuation of DACA.
“The diversity that immigrants and foreign students bring to our colleges strengthens the learning experience for all our students and will be good for our country’s future,” the statement said
Ahead of the administration’s announcement, UVM President Tom Sullivan issued a statement to members of the university community affirming support for those who may be covered by DACA.
“We stand united in our efforts to ensure their welfare and academic success at UVM,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for the university said the UVM administration does not have information about how many students are DACA recipients because the school doesn’t ask for students’ immigration status.