WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday announced an end to an Obama-era program giving legal protections to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as youths, challenging Congress to come up with a law by March 5 allowing them to stay.

The move, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, comes as President Donald Trump has wavered over what to do with immigrants – some now adults – in the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own, brought here when they were under the age of 16.

Former President Barack Obama said in a statement posted on Facebook, “Let’s be clear: the action taken today isn’t required legally. It’s a political decision, and a moral question.”

Under the new Trump policy, no new applicants will be allowed into the DACA program. Each DACA permit is good for two years, and the permits will be honored until they expire. A Dreamer with a permit expiring by March must reapply by Oct. 5, immigration officials told reporters in a briefing before Sessions’ remarks.

SESSIONS: Text of attorney general’s remarks
OBAMA: Calls Trump’s decision “cruel” and “contrary to our spirit”

Trump campaigned as an immigration hard-liner pledging to end DACA, though he would say – as recently as last week – that he “loved” Dreamers.

The White House said in a statement, “DACA made it impossible for President Trump to pursue the reforms needed to restore fairness to our immigration system and protect American workers.”

Sessions, relying on a legal, not political argument, said former President Barack Obama tried to achieve what Congress refused to do while he was in office in announcing the end of what he called “unilateral executive amnesty.”

Said Sessions, “This policy was implemented unilaterally to great controversy and legal concern after Congress rejected legislative proposals to extend similar benefits on numerous occasions to this same group of illegal aliens.

“In other words, the executive branch, through DACA, deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions. Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., rejected the Sessions assertion that DACA was being revoked for legal reasons.

“Make no mistake — this decision is not about ‘rule of law,’ as Attorney General Sessions claims. This is a gut-wrenching betrayal of American values that leaves nearly 800,000 of our neighbors vulnerable to deportation and tears families and communities apart.”

In June 2012, Obama created a legal safe haven for these involuntary illegal immigrants, often called “Dreamers” with the launch of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program.

Tossing the fate of some 800,000 illegal immigrants to Congress will trigger months of high-stakes negotiating among Republicans who are split within their party over whether or not the Obama protections given to “Dreamers” should be written into law.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the founder of the Dreamers movement and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in June introduced a stand alone bill to protect Dreamers.

However, Congress usually does not pass single-issue measures. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the Tuesday briefing Trump would not sign legislation with a “one piece fix.” Other linked items now coming into play include funding for a wall on the southern U.S. border.

Democrats have been united in calling any move exposing Dreamers to possible deportation as heartless. Republican ranks are divided between hard-line anti-immigrant Republicans and GOPers who see Dreamers in a predicament not of their making.

Durbin said in a statement, “In my first conversation with President Trump on Inauguration Day, I thanked him for the positive things he had said about the Dreamers. He looked me in the eye and said: “Don’t worry. We are going to take care of those kids.”

“…But today’s announcement from Attorney General Sessions was cold, harsh, threatening, and showed little respect, let alone love, for these Dreamers.

“Starting this countdown clock will require Congress to act fast to stop rolling mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of young people—students, teachers, doctors, engineers, first responders, service members, and more. Families will be torn apart and America will lose many of our best and brightest unless Republicans join with Democrats to right this wrong immediately. I first introduced the Dream Act sixteen years ago to ensure these young people could stay here, in the only country they’ve ever known. Now Congress must act on this bipartisan bill, and act now. These families cannot wait.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said Congress, now back after a summer break, may take action faced with the stark Trump March deadline.

Speaking on CNN before Sessions made his remarks, Kinzinger said, if Trump “comes out today and says he’s suspending DACA in six months, but he hopes Congress gets their act together and puts it into law, I think we get it done,” he said. “I think it’s going to depend on what the tone of the president is.”

Earlier Tuesday, Trump tossed the political sizzling issue to Capitol Hill.

He tweeted: “Congress, get ready to do your job – DACA!”

House Speaker Paul Ryan last week urged Trump to wait and not end DACA; Trump nevertheless imposed the deadline.