By Richard Cowan and Makini Brice
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump declared as "dead" on Monday a program that protects immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and pressed Congress to pass legislation to secure the U.S. border with Mexico.
Trump's latest comments on immigration, made via Twitter, came as the U.S. Department of Justice moved to establish first-ever quotas for immigration judges aimed at speeding up cases and clearing a backlog.
Trump said in September he would terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program introduced by his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, but gave the Republican-controlled Congress until March 6 to replace it.
Congress failed to meet that deadline, but courts have ruled the program can stay in place for now.
"DACA is dead because the Democrats didn't care or act, and now everyone wants to get onto the DACA bandwagon," the Republican president said in a Twitter post.
Trump also urged Congress to "pass tough laws and build the WALL," referring to a U.S.-Mexico border wall he has championed as a way to curb illegal immigration and the flow of drugs.
In a move aimed at speeding deportations, the Department of Justice sent an email on Friday to federal immigration judges telling them their job performance would be evaluated based on how quickly they close cases.
Judges will be required to complete at least 700 cases a year and have fewer than 15 percent of their decisions appealed and remanded back, according to Dana Marks, spokeswoman for the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Another metric demands that 85 percent of removal cases for detained immigrants be completed within three days of a hearing on the merits of the case. The new policy is expected to take effect on Oct. 1.
A growing backlog of immigration cases reached 687,000 in March, according to a Reuters analysis of court records, and caused asylum seekers to wait years to present their cases.
Amiena Khan, executive vice president of the immigration judges’ union, said the new rules threatened to interfere with judicial independence. “It’s going to create havoc within the courts,” said Khan, who also serves as an immigration judge in New York. “The integrity of the entire process is at risk.”
On Monday, senior administration officials told reporters that legislation was being prepared aimed at helping speed deportations of some illegal immigrants. They did not provide a timetable for submitting it to Congress and did not say whether provisions to help DACA recipients would be included.
No immigration deal has materialized in the Republican-controlled Congress despite months of efforts. The Senate considered several immigration proposals in February but rejected all of them, including bipartisan bills and legislation tailored to Trump's requirements.
NO 'RELIABLE PARTNER'
Democrats have blamed Trump for the tenuous status of the DACA program that shielded hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, often called "Dreamers," from deportation and gave them work permits.
Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said in a telephone interview: "After the experience of giving this president six different bipartisan options and having him reject them all ... I don't believe we have a reliable partner" in negotiations that are now dormant.
In the past, Trump had said he was open to a deal with congressional Democrats in which they would support funding for the border wall in exchange for protection for the Dreamers.
But on Sunday, he indicated that the time had passed, writing on Twitter: "'Caravans' coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!"
The mention of a caravan apparently referred to a group of 1,500 men, women and children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who are traveling in a "refugee caravan" organized by the U.S.-based immigration advocacy group Pueblo sin Fronteras, whose Spanish name means People Without Borders.
By traveling together, the immigrants hope to protect themselves from the crime and extortion that makes the route through Mexico toward the U.S. border dangerous. They say some but not all of them will seek asylum if they reach the United States.
"The only person gaming DACA is not in the caravan. He's in the Oval Office" of the White House, Durbin said, referring to Trump.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Sarah Lynch in Washington; Reade Levinson in New York and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Peter Cooney)