The Trump administration is canceling an Obama-era policy allowing millions of undocumented parents of US-born children to stay in the country, but leaving intact a separate scheme protecting young immigrants.
In a statement late Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security said it was rescinding a 2014 policy to shield from deportation an estimated 3.6 million people.
The policy, known as DAPA — for Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents — has never been implemented due to court challenges.
After it was announced by Barack Obama's administration, 26 states successfully sued in a Texas federal court to block the program. Last year the US Supreme Court deadlocked on the case, with the effect that the lower ruling stood.
The decision to rescind the ruling rather than continue to defend it in court leaves those covered by DAPA's provisions at risk of deportation, with no suggestion by DHS of a replacement policy in the works.
But the government made clear it would continue to honor a sister program, known as Dreamers, that allows people who entered the United States illegally as children to stay if they are in school or working.
President Donald Trump had threatened to ax that program, putting an estimated 1.7 million people, many of them undocumented students in US schools, at risk of deportation.
For now, the "Dreamers" program — officially, the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — will remain in place.
The Trump administration's move comes amid a crackdown on illegal immigration ordered by the president, who during last year's campaign had pledged to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and to end the Dreamers program.
'We will continue to fight'
Since Trump took office in January, the government has said its crackdown will focus on illegal immigrants with criminal records and those linked to violent gangs.
But raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have caught up many people with minor legal violations and families who have lived in the country for decades.
Pro-migrant groups were cautiously supportive of the stance on Dreamers, though unhappy that the measure would only allow qualifying people to stay in the country on two-year permits before they have to reapply, rather than the three-year permits Obama had set in 2014.
The Trump administration "now says it won't go backward on DACA," said Cecillia Wang, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, in a tweet. "We'll be watching ICE to hold you to it."
Republican Senator Tom Cotton came out strongly in support of the move to scrap DAPA, calling it "a deeply irresponsible policy" and a "blatant attempt by the president to circumvent Congress that the courts swiftly shut down."
But advocates sharply condemned the decision.
"Their announcement to keep DACA, while revoking DAPA and deporting family members is deceitful and is another effort to keep immigrant families feeling uncomfortable about their place in America," said Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
"Their enforcement actions and policy decisions continue to create fear and anxiety in immigrant communities," she added.
"The rescission blocks much-needed deportation relief for our families, as they will be vulnerable to Trump's deportation machine," said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition.
"We will not let President Trump rip apart families, and we will continue to fight for the 11 million undocumented families until we secure permanent legislative relief," he said in a statement.