A US immigration programme protecting hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the United States illegally as children is ‘probably dead,’ President Donald Trump said Sunday.

The clock is ticking on negotiating legislation that would spare the programme, which will begin winding down in March unless Congress and Trump can agree on a bill.

‘DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don't really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our Military,’ Trump wrote on Twitter.

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme put in place under former president Barack Obama. It allows an estimated 800,000 people, mostly from Mexico and Central and South American countries, to remain legally in the US.

In a separate tweet Trump repeated his desire for merit-based immigration policies.

The tweets come after a major controversy over reports that Trump referred to immigrants from African nations, El Salvador and Haiti as coming from ‘shithole countries.’ The president admitted using ‘tough’ language in the White House meeting last week with a group of senators, but denied using profanity.

White House spokesman Raj Shah said Sunday on Fox News that the president wants border security issues, including funding for a wall along the US-Mexico border, to be part of any deal. Some Democrats have called for a ‘clean’ bill that addresses only the DACA issue.

Shah said there are a number of ‘ongoing conversations’ on immigration that will continue.