President Trump’s sympathetic remarks about the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers — “these incredible kids,” he has called them — were a surprising turn for a man who had vowed during the campaign to “immediately terminate” their protections from deportation.
But they are unlikely to be the last word. Mr. Trump has not ruled out ending the Obama-era program that shields the young immigrants, who have taken little comfort in his comments. And the president is already coming under intense pressure from the immigration hard-liners in his Republican base to keep his promise.
The problem that Mr. Trump faces as he worries aloud about how to handle the young immigrants, who were brought illegally to this country as small children, encapsulates the beating heart of the difficult choices confronting him. In theory, it is a question of laws and numbers, but in practice it is an emotional and often gut-wrenching matter of human lives affected and families at risk.
It also captures the rifts within the White House, where Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and Stephen Miller, his policy director, are driving a get-tough immigration policy while Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, has counseled a gentler approach.
“To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids,” Mr. Trump said at a recent White House news conference. He said he would deal with the matter with “great heart,” but nodded to the political difficulty of doing so.
Supporters of Mr. Trump held a protest against a pro-immigration rally in Los Angeles on Feb. 18. The president is coming under intense pressure from the immigration hard-liners in his Republican base to keep his promise to end DACA.
The president is weighing a variety of strategies for dealing with the roughly 840,000 Dreamers, according to senior officials, including Mr. Priebus, and lawmakers of both parties in Congress have been trying to devise legislation to carve out a special status for them. For the time being, Mr. Trump’s administration is still issuing work permits to undocumented people under the program, leaving their protection intact even if their fate is in limbo.
The delay has outraged supporters of Mr. Trump’s who took his vows to rescind President Barack Obama’s program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, very seriously.
“He’s really starting to anger his base with this,” said Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, a group that works to reduce immigration. “I’ve got people really angry and talking about ‘He’s double crossed us, he’s deceived us.’ You could say that the troops are restless, and I can’t blame them.”
Mr. Beck started a petition last month to demand that the president put an immediate end to the program, and opened a Twitter campaign encouraging people to send postings directly to Mr. Trump’s official and personal accounts, @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump, urging him to keep his pledge.
“His promise on DACA was pretty clear and unequivocal,” said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates strong immigration restrictions. That would be a “pretty basic thing” to renege on, he said, “right in the beginning of an administration.”
Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Trump on the matter during their private meeting at the White House two days after the election, and said days before leaving office that he would publicly object if his successor sought to target Dreamers for deportation.
Mr. Trump has a number of options for addressing the program. He could rescind it, essentially invalidating the temporary work permits that have been issued since 2012. That could open hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to deportation under his new guidelines, which prioritize the removal of anyone who has entered the country illegally.
Another option would be to phase out the program by letting those who have the work permits, which must be renewed every two years, keep them until they expired and ceasing the issuing of any new ones. The result would plunge Dreamers back into an uncertain status.
The president could also pursue the matter through the courts. A second order that Mr. Obama issued in 2014 to expand eligibility for the program and give legal status to as many as five million parents of citizens and legal permanent residents was quickly blocked by a legal challenge by the State of Texas, and the Supreme Court announced last year that it had deadlocked on the case, 4 to 4. That case did not cover Mr. Obama’s initial directive, but it could be amended to apply to both programs, or a new one could be filed against DACA.