Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told Latino lawmakers on Wednesday that a program that protected young immigrants from deportation was probably illegal, though he was personally supportive, according to House members.
Kelly attended a closed-door meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who pressed him on former President Obama's Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA gives hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the country as children protection from deportation and a work permit.
A group of attorneys general has called on the Trump administration to phase out the program. Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton and others have threatened to amend a District Court case to challenge the DACA program unless the Trump administration acts to phase it out.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pushed Kelly for an update on whether the administration would defend the program. They said they came away from the meeting concerned.
"He's personally for it. He thinks it will not hold up, according to the attorneys he's spoken with," said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas). "He was challenged by those of us in the room, by lawmakers, to publicly announce his own position and to be a leader and to stand up and defend DACA. He said he would consider it."
Trump pledged as a candidate to "immediately end" the DACA program. But as president he has said that class of immigrants will not be targets for deportation. He said they could "rest easy" and that his administration was "not after the Dreamers; we are after the criminals."
Kelly did not speak with reporters after the hourlong meeting, but Homeland Security spokesman Dave Lapan confirmed that Kelly had doubts about the program's legal viability, based on conversations he's had with attorneys inside and outside of the department.
"Again that was a personal observation based on discussions with attorneys," Lapan said.
Lapan said it remained to be seen whether Kelly would support legislation on the issue.
Several lawmakers said Kelly told them he was unaware of legislation to make the DACA program permanent, but when told that there was, he said he would look into it. They also said that Kelly told them he was one of the program's biggest defenders within the department.
"Here's what he did say to us: 'I've been fighting for DACA, and basically the reason we're in July and nothing has gone awry with DACA is because of my presence as secretary of Homeland Security,' " said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).
Lawmakers at the meeting are pushing for passage of a bill called the Bridge Act that would allow hundreds of thousands of young immigrants to remain eligible for a work permit without fear of deportation. They challenged Kelly to attend a news conference on Capitol Hill in support of the bill before the August recess, just like he did when he appeared with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan recently. Then, Kelly pushed for two bills that cracked down on illegal immigration.