Pardoning illegal immigrants isn’t a viable option for President Obama in his final weeks in office, his top domestic policy adviser said in an interview released Tuesday that dashes the hopes of activists who demanded that he use his powers to shield Dreamers from deportation.
White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Munoz, in a podcast interview with the Center for Migration Studies, said advisers have concluded that a pardon wouldn’t apply to immigration cases — and wouldn’t be a permanent solution anyway.
“It’s not an answer here,” she said.
Fearing the prospect of a President Trump making good on his vows to crack down on illegal immigrants, advocates have pleaded with Mr. Obama to take steps before he leaves office Jan. 20.
They have asked that he halt all deportations for the rest of his tenure and demanded that he make expansive use of the president’s power of the pardon.
Pointing to Confederate troops after the Civil War and draft-dodgers after the Vietnam War as groups that had been granted mass pardons, they said the same tool could be used for more than 740,000 Dreamers — young adult illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Mr. Obama granted them a deportation amnesty under his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“We are asking the president to pardon them for their undocumented status,” Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, said at a press conference this month. “This would not give them a permanent safe place, but it is a start.”
Mr. Obama was initially coy when asked in the days after the election whether he could do more to protect Dreamers from deportation during a Trump administration.
Ms. Munoz, though, said a pardon doesn’t apply.
“I know people are hoping that pardon authority is a way to protect people. It’s ultimately not, for a couple reasons. One is that pardon authority is generally designed for criminal violations, not civil. But also it doesn’t confer legal status. Only Congress can do that. So ultimately, it wouldn’t protect a single soul from deportation,” she said.
As Mr. Obama prepares to depart the White House, most of his immigration legacy is in danger. After he failed to get legislation passed in Congress, he took a series of executive actions to streamline legal immigration, to expand waivers to give some illegal immigrants an easier path to legal status and to put most of the rest of the illegal immigrant population out of danger of deportation.
In his most far-reaching effort, he tried to expand the 2012 DACA program to include more than 4 million additional illegal immigrants, hoping to halt their deportations and grant them work permits, entitling them to driver’s licenses and some taxpayer benefits.
Federal courts said the president overreached his lawful powers and put the expanded program on hold.
Mr. Trump has said he will cancel the program and the 2012 DACA. He could take both actions on his first day in office with a simple memo revoking the policies.
That would leave Dreamers — the most sympathetic cases in the immigration debate — in limbo.
Activist groups are trying to persuade Mr. Trump to change his mind and keep the DACA program in place, saying it will be the first big test of his administration.
“We will not allow them to be deported after what they have been through,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has been a chief defender of the Dreamers. “Now is the time for America, this nation of immigrants, to heal the wounds that divided us during this election. Let’s start with the Dreamers. Let’s start with DACA.”
Ms. Munoz, who worked on immigration as a top official at the National Council of La Raza before joining the Obama administration, said in the podcast interview that DACA was a clear success, encouraging qualified migrants to step forward on their own.
But she said she wished the administration had been able to make more permanent changes through legislation. In 2010, Congress fell just a few votes shy of passing the Dream Act to grant Dreamers a pathway to citizenship.
In the broader debate, she said, efforts were derailed by forces on both sides: conservatives who said more action was needed on enforcement, and immigrant rights activists who undercut the administration with politically difficult demands.
“I worry that on both sides of the immigration debate, emotion gets in the way of sound thinking with respect to what are the problems that we can fix. And on both sides of the debate, I think, the degree of emotion can interfere with just making good policy judgments and good strategic judgments,” she said.
“The fact that the yelling gets in the way of what everybody kind of agrees we need to do has had tragic results in this country, and we need to do better,” Ms. Munoz said.
In particular, she said, advocates may have kneecapped their chances for a bill after legislation cleared the Senate in 2013, and needed only House action. But instead of demanding action from Congress, advocates pressured Mr. Obama to expand his deportation amnesty, taking the burden off Capitol Hill, she said.
“They got frustrated with Congress and insisted that the president could just fix it himself,” she said. “That happened at a time when a little pressure on Congress could have been really useful. And they were just [let] completely off the hook.”
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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