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Washington (AFP) - The conservative majority on the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic on Tuesday to US President Donald Trump's decision to end a program which protected nearly 700,000 young immigrants known as "Dreamers" from deportation.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, was created by former president Barack Obama and allows young undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally as children -- nicknamed "Dreamers" -- to stay and work in the United States.
Trump, who takes a hardline stance on immigration, announced in September 2017 that he would terminate the DACA program, and it expired last year after Congress failed to come up with a replacement.
Challenges to the phase-out of the program, which enjoys bipartisan support, eventually ended up before the nine justices on the nation's top court.
A ruling is not expected until next year, when the US presidential election campaign -- in which immigration is likely to be a hot-button theme -- will be at its height.
Trump weighed in on Tuesday as the court heard arguments, claiming that "many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from 'angels.' Some are very tough, hardened criminals."
DACA applicants are not eligible if they have a criminal record.
Trump also left the door open, however, to an agreement with Democrats in Congress if the Supreme Court -- where conservative justices hold a five to four majority -- scraps the program.
"If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!" he said.
The conservative justices on the Supreme Court appeared to side on Tuesday with the Trump administration's arguments for ending DACA, while the liberal justices appeared skeptical.
Trump-appointed justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch led an intense grilling of Theodore Olson, an attorney representing the "Dreamers," on whether he believes the administration has the authority to terminate the DACA program.
- 'Roller coaster' -
Liberal justices on the bench questioned why the administration was taking the action in the first place.
"I have always had some difficulty in understanding the illegality of DACA," said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the liberal members of the court.
"I've always had some difficulty in understanding what's wrong with an agency saying, we're going to prioritize our removals," Sotomayor said.
"And for those people, like the DACA people who haven't committed crimes, who are lawfully employed, who are paying taxes, who pose no threat to our security... we're not going to exercise our limited resources to try to get rid of those people," she said.
Another liberal justice, Stephen Breyer, listed the vast number of groups supporting the "Dreamers" -- health care organizations, labor unions, educational associations, military organizations and others.
For the nearly 700,000 "Dreamers" at the crux of the debate, the outcome could not be more personal.
"This is has been like a roller coaster," said Angelica Villalobos, a 34-year-old Mexican mother of five who works in an auto repair shop in Oklahoma.
She said she and her husband, who also entered illegally as a minor, talk to their children about what might happen if the court ruling does not go their way and they might become unable to drive or work -- "things that we're doing right now that keep the family more normal."
"Our lives are in their hands," said Arelis Hernandez, a "Dreamer" from California who waited for two nights in the cold to attend the oral arguments.
"It was overwhelming to be inside," Hernandez said. "The decisions that they make are going to affect us."
Like them, hundreds of thousands of others "have been in the country for at least 12 years, become part of the fabric of our communities or institutions," said Omar Jadwat of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Supporting the "Dreamers" in front of the court Tuesday was John Miller, a 64-year-old retiree holding a banner featuring an American flag and a Mexican flag and the message "Build Bridges Not Walls."
"What is happening to the immigrants is not what God wants," Miller said. "What Trump is doing is wrong."
If the Supreme Court fails to extend legal protection to the "Dreamers," they are not expected to be automatically deported; most will probably slip quietly into the shadowy life of the undocumented, for whom working and studying is fraught with difficulty.
The vast majority of the "Dreamers" are from Mexico, and smaller numbers come from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, South Korea, Brazil and other countries.