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California Democrats push back on White House stance that President Obama can’t pardon ‘Dreamers’

Dreamers in Washington, D.C.
Activists participate in a United We Dream rally at the White House on July 28, 2014.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Led by members of the California delegation, dozens of House Democrats are again pleading with President Obama to pardon hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to whom he granted temporary deportation deferrals.

Last month, several members of Congress asked Obama 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.

The lawmakers say that even though the so-called Dreamers would be left 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.

A White House official immediately batted down the idea, saying a pardon wouldn’t give them legal status.

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In a news conference Wednesday, the lawmakers disputed that position, emotion filling their voices.

“Our request is very narrow in scope; we are simply asking him to protect these young DACA individuals who have committed no crime and who through no fault of their own were brought to the United States with their families in search of a better life,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) said. “Their immigration status under DACA must be protected, and a presidential pardon would do just that.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), a former immigration attorney, dismissed the White House’s unofficial position that the president cannot grant the pardons. She noted that past presidents have issued blanket pardons to people in certain groups, and said that the Constitution says the president can issue a pardon for “offenses” and doesn’t stipulate which crimes. She said the only part of their plan that hasn’t been done before is forgiving future immigration offenses.

“We know that there is no case law on the idea of giving a prospective pardon for a civil offense, but these kids took a risk and we ask President Obama to take a risk as well. These kids deserve everything we can do to keep them safe from deportation,” she said.

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A letter to the White House signed by more than 60 members of Congress reiterated the sentiment.

“The Constitution specifically does not limit the pardon power to criminal offenses. We ask for the narrow reprieve of a retroactive and prospective pardon of categorical civil immigration violations for a unique group of young immigrants who have placed their trust in both you as their president and us as their lawmakers,” the letter states. “To be clear, we are not asking you to ‘create legal status.’ ”

Asked about the renewed pardon request, a White House official responded, “The president takes the executive clemency power seriously. As a general matter, we do not comment on the likelihood of whether a specific pardon may be granted, should one be requested. 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.”

Dreamers 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, immigration advocates and the administration said providing the information would protect the Dreamers and was worth the risk. But with President-elect Donald 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 that the information they provided will be used to deport them.

“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” Trump told Time magazine in an interview published Wednesday, but he provided no details on how he’d accommodate the Dreamers.

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What will happen to the estimated 750,000 program participants — one in three of whom are thought to live in California — has been a growing concern in recent weeks. At least two senators are talking about addressing the issue in 2017, and on Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel brought the topic directly to Trump with a letter asking him not to deport the Dreamers.

The White House hasn’t directly addressed the pardon request, but Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that the fate of the Dreamers has come up with incoming Trump officials.

“We’ve taken quite seriously the transition process to ensure the incoming administration understands what policies we’ve pursued and why we’ve pursued them, and what impact they’ve had across the country. But ultimately the next president will take office on Jan. 20, and it’s his policies that will be implemented,” Earnest said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) made her own appeal in a statement asking Obama to protect the personal information the young immigrants provided from being used to deport them. That approach has been pushed by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and more than 100 members.

“Dreamers who came forward to enroll in President Obama’s DACA initiative could have their addresses and personal data handed to an incoming administration that made intimidation and hateful statements against immigrants a hallmark of the campaign,” Pelosi said. “President Obama should use every possible measure to protect our Dreamers and their data.”

sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California’s delegation at latimes.com/politics

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