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California in Congress

California Democrats ask Obama to pardon nearly 750,000 'Dreamers,' but White House says it wouldn't work

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) joined other lawmakers in asking President Obama to protect young immigrants who gave their information to the government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) joined other lawmakers in asking President Obama to protect young immigrants who gave their information to the government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

The members of Congress who persuaded President Obama to grant temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought into the country illegally as children are now asking him to use a pardon to prevent those immigrants from being deported by President-elect Donald Trump.

The White House, however, promptly batted down the idea.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) and Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) sent a letter to Obama on Thursday asking him to use his pardon authority to forgive the past and future civil immigration offenses of the nearly 750,000 people granted deportation deferrals under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

They believe that would keep those people from being deported, and even though it would leave them in legal limbo without work permits or visas, they could more easily apply for legal status from within the U.S. without immigration offenses on their records.

"They wouldn't have a piece of paper, they wouldn't have work authorization, but they wouldn't have to be living in fear every moment of their lives about deportation," Lofgren said after a news conference Thursday.

Lofgren, a former immigration attorney, said the pardons would probably be applied to the civil offenses related to entering and remaining in the country without authorization.

But whether a pardon would actually be applicable in the so-called Dreamers' situation is unclear. Lawyers disagree over whether the immigrants could be pardoned for civil crimes they haven't been formally accused of, and whether such a pardon would actually prevent them from being deported while they seek legal status.

A White House official signaled late Thursday that the administration was not considering a pardon for those registered under DACA because it believes a pardon would not allow them legal status.

"We note that the clemency power could not give legal status to any undocumented individual. As we have repeatedly said for years, only Congress can create legal status for undocumented individuals," an administration official said.

After immigration reform efforts stalled in Congress during Obama's first term, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pressured Obama to act independently to protect from deportation certain immigrants brought into the country illegally when they were children. He then used an executive order to create the DACA program in 2012.

The Dreamers, one in three of whom are estimated to live in California, gave the Department of Homeland Security their fingerprints, home addresses and other information to undergo background checks that allowed them to defer deportation under DACA.

At the time, advocates and the administration emphasized that providing the information would protect the Dreamers and was worth the risk. But with Trump vowing to deport millions of people who are in the country illegally and many fearing he may let the DACA program expire, Dreamers are worried the information they provided will be used to deport them.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), whose husband is an immigration attorney, said at the news conference she has been getting a flood of messages from frightened Dreamers. On Tuesday she sent a letter to Obama asking him to keep their information from the Trump administration.

"We promised these recipients security, and now they are facing a nightmare," she said.

Roybal-Allard said those who pushed Obama to create the program and persuaded people to come out of the shadows to register with the government have an obligation to protect them.

"These are kids. We feel a sense of responsibility. We went out into our districts and we talked to the Dreamers, and they asked us, 'Is it really OK for us to do this?'" Roybal-Allard said. "And we said, 'No, don't worry, you need to come forward.' Now we are in a situation where all that we said, in fact, could possibly be reversed."

Although the president's pardon power is normally used for individual cases, there is some precedent for the chief executive to pardon a large group of people.

President Jimmy Carter pardoned half a million Vietnam War draft evaders in 1977, and at least seven other presidents have issued broad pardons.

Congress and the Supreme Court cannot undo a presidential pardon, nor can a new president.

Lofgren said if Obama doesn't pardon the Dreamers, she hopes he responds with his own idea to help them.

"These young people are not alone, they are not going to be abandoned by us," she said.

UPDATES

4:59 p.m. This post was updated with additional details throughout.

2:15 p.m. This post was updated with the White House's response to the proposal.

This post was originally published at 11:30 a.m.

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