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More than 60 Democratic members of Congress are urging President Obama to protect the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who signed up for his deferred action program before he leaves office next month.
“You have pardoned hundreds and hundreds of people convicted for drug offenses,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said at a Wednesday press conference in Washington. “We want you to use that same pardon power for hundreds of thousands of young people who came forward because you asked them to come forward. You asked them to come forward.”
“With that comes responsibility, Mr. President,” he added.
The White House has informed the Democrats that “the clemency power could not give legal status to any undocumented individual” and that only Congress has that power. Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said in a podcast last week that a mass pardon would not “protect a single soul from deportation.”
But the Democrats say in a new letter to Obama that he still has the responsibility and authority to issue a “narrow reprieve” for all civil immigration violations the young people may have committed. That would not create legal status, they argue, but could make them eligible to apply for it.
Jeffrey Crouch, a law professor at American University, said that even if this mass grant of pardon for a civil offense was possible, it’s unlikely that Obama would want to open up this “can of worms” so close to the end of his presidency. It would also be a departure from his unprecedented work commuting the sentences of more than 1,000 federal prisoners serving decades-long sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
“Granting clemency for a civil offense would be a real departure from how clemency is generally used,” Crouch told Yahoo News. Presidents have issued mass pardons in the past, such as Jimmy Carter’s blanket clemency for draft dodgers, but those related to criminal — not civil — offenses.
But the Democratic representatives say Obama has a responsibility to protect the young people who trusted him and the government. “I hope the president will do the right thing,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said.
Since Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, more than 750,000 young people have submitted fingerprints, undergone background checks and paid fees to protect themselves from deportation and receive permission to work legally for two years. These young immigrants, sometimes called “Dreamers,” were brought to the United States as children by their families.
The Democrats are raising the specter that President-elect Donald Trump could deport all of these people once he takes office, since he’s vowed to immediately rescind all of Obama’s “illegal” executive actions and to deport everyone who immigrated to the country illegally.
“Donald Trump when he’s president is going to know where they live, where they study, who their family is,” Gutierrez said in Spanish during the press conference.
But Trump said in an interview with Time magazine published Wednesday that he would “work something out” for the young immigrants. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here,” he said. “Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.” He’s also said his deportation plans would focus on “criminal” immigrants, though it’s unclear exactly what that means.
It’s possible Congress will work out that solution for the immigrants before Trump is sworn in. Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are planning a bill that would give the young immigrants legal status before Trump takes office.
View the Democrats’ letter to Obama below: