Defered Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a scheme to protect young undocumented immigrants in the United States, has been scrapped, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Tuesday.
The announcement has however sparked protests across the country.
No first-time applications for the programme will be acted on after Tuesday, the government confirmed.
However, existing recipients will not be affected for at least six months.
The scheme, instituted by the Barack Obama administration, protected some 800,000 so-called “Dreamers” , mostly Latin Americans, from deportation.
They were able to apply for work and study permits under a policy which, critics said, amounted to an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
US President Donald Trump took a hard line on immigration while campaigning for office last year and said he planned to “immediately terminate” DACA if elected.
In a statement after the programme was rescinded, Trump said: “I do not favour punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents. But we must also recognise that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”
The Mexican government said in a statement (in Spanish) that it profoundly regretted the scrapping of DACA and would step up its consular work on behalf of its citizens who are affected.
Those returning to Mexico would be welcomed back “with open arms”, it said.
In protest of the scrapping of DACA, students at Denver schools walked out of classes, declaring support for “dreamers”.
US House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi slammed Tuesday’s decision, describing it as a “cruel act of political cowardice” and urged Congress to take action.
Barack Obama, who introduced the policy in 2012, wrote on Facebook: “To target these young people is wrong – because they have done nothing wrong.”
He went on to say: “Let’s be clear: the action taken today isn’t required legally. It’s a political decision, and a moral question. Whatever concerns or complaints Americans may have about immigration in general, we shouldn’t threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us. They are that pitcher on our kid’s softball team, that first responder who helps out his community after a disaster, that cadet in ROTC who wants nothing more than to wear the uniform of the country that gave him a chance. Kicking them out won’t lower the unemployment rate, or lighten anyone’s taxes, or raise anybody’s wages”
Police in New York made at least a dozen arrests when protesters rallied in front of Trump Tower, US media report, but there were no reports of clashes.
DACA protects young illegal immigrants in the US from deportation and provides temporary permits for work and study.
In order to qualify for the programme, applicants under the age of 30 submitted personal information to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
They had to go through an FBI background check and have a clean criminal record, and either be in school, recently graduated or have been honourably discharged from the military.
In exchange, the US government agreed to “defer” any action on their immigration status for a period of two years.