By Lawrence Hurley and Tom Hals
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to allow it to end a programme introduced by former President Barack Obama that protects thousands of young immigrants who live in the United States without legal status.
The day before congressional elections in which Trump's harsh anti-immigration rhetoric has taken centre stage, the administration urged the justices to throw out three lower court rulings that blocked Trump's plan to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme.
The policy has shielded from deportation immigrants dubbed "Dreamers" and given them work permits, though not a path to citizenship.
In a court filing, Solicitor General Noel Francisco said the original DACA policy was introduced by Obama administration officials "even though existing laws provided them no ability to do so." Now, it is lawful for the Department of Homeland Security to change course, he added.
"It is plainly within DHS's authority to set the nation's immigration enforcement priorities and to end the discretionary DACA policy," Francisco said.
The Justice Department's move was unusually aggressive in terms of procedure, asking the justices to take action even before intermediate federal appeals courts have ruled on the three lower court rulings. The administration says a final ruling is urgently needed.
If the Supreme Court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, agrees to hear the case, a ruling would likely come before the end of June.
Trump and his conservative political allies have made his hard-line policies toward immigration a key issue ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections that will determine if his fellow Republicans maintain control of Congress.
The Trump administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he bypassed Congress and created DACA, which offers protections to roughly 700,000 young adults, mostly Hispanics.
The administration is contesting three different district court rulings from judges in California, New York and the District of Columbia that told the administration to continue processing renewals of existing DACA applications while litigation over the legality of Trump's action is resolved.
(Reporting by Tom Hals and Lawrence Hurley, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)