By Yeganeh Torbati and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. official told Congress on Tuesday it would be "rational" to legislate a path for citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, but within hours the administration backtracked, saying his comments did not state the views of President Donald Trump.
The Trump administration last month ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which began in 2012 under former President Barack Obama. The program allowed nearly 800,000 so-called "Dreamers" to work legally in the United States without being deported. The policy was aimed at young people who came to the United States illegally as children.
The administration said it ended DACA because Obama overstepped his constitutional authority by creating the policy without Congressional approval. Trump called on Congress to enact a law to protect DACA recipients, and last month angered some fellow Republicans by negotiating with congressional Democratic leaders on possible legislation.
At a Senate hearing, Republican Senator John Kennedy asked Homeland Security official Michael Dougherty about Dreamers. "Should they be allowed to stay?"
"Under a rational bill these individuals would be able to become lawful permanent residents with a pathway to citizenship," Dougherty, assistant Department of Homeland Security secretary for border, immigration and trade policy, responded.
"So the president believes they should be allowed to stay," Kennedy responded.
"The president, yes, would like to work with Congress to get a solution," Dougherty said, declining to give further specifics on conditions under which Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the country.
Hours later, DHS moved to distance the administration from Dougherty's testimony.
"Mr. Dougherty was not stating administration policy or the President's views," said Tyler Q. Houlton, the DHS deputy press secretary. "The White House will be issuing its priorities for immigration reform in the coming week."
The Trump administration has sent conflicting signals on the immigration issue, a focus of Trump's 2016 campaign. Candidate Trump promised to end DACA and ultimately fulfilled that promise, but he has also expressed sympathy for the young immigrants it benefited.
"A BURDEN ON DREAMERS"
During the hearing, Dougherty said the administration's immigration priorities include border control, better vetting, reducing visa overstays, reforming non-immigrant business visas and establishing a merit-based system that favors skilled immigrants. He said the administration also wants to expand its ability to quickly remove people who enter illegally and do not claim asylum.
Republicans in Congress have introduced several bills that would fulfill aspects of Trump's agenda, but many Democrats and immigration groups see the proposals as poison pills that would kill the chance for a deal. Democrats say it is unfair to make legislation helping DACA recipients contingent on a broad suite of enforcement and reform measures.
"Please do not put the burden on the Dreamers to accept every aspect of comprehensive immigration reform to get a chance to become citizens of the United States," Senator Dick Durbin said during the hearing.
Last month Trump said he was close to a deal with top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer and top House of Representatives Democrat Nancy Pelosi on protections for DACA recipients that would have border security measures without funding construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border that he promised during the campaign.
After meeting with the Democrats, Trump said, "We're not looking at citizenship" for Dreamers. But Pelosi and Schumer said Trump had embraced provisions of a bipartisan proposal called the Dream Act that would grant permanent legal resident status to Dreamers who qualify, and eventually, a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who dined on Monday with Trump and other Republicans, was asked whether the president's tentative agreement with Schumer and Pelosi was still live.
"I think what Nancy said when she left the meeting is different from what everybody else in the meeting had the impression of," McCarthy said, declining to answer further questions.
An aide to Pelosi later said "there is no change in our understanding" after "subsequent conversations" with the White House. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity.
Schumer, at a news conference after the Democratic caucus, said, "We were explicit that the president would support...the Dream Act. If they are backing off that, we ought to know."
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Richard Cowan in Washington; additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)