By Rafael Bernal - 11-17-16 17:41 PM EST
A group of House Democrats petitioned President Barack Obama Thursday to pardon undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children for their immigration violations.
Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said it is Obama's "responsibility" to protect participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from potential immigration enforcement measures taken by a Trump administration.
"We want the immigrant community to know that we are not giving up, we are going to fight for them, we are going to stand by them, we are on their side," Lofgren said at the press conference.
In a letter to Obama, the proponents argued that the president's power to grant pardons extends to civil immigration violations such as illegal entry, overstaying a visa and illegal presence.
"We urge you to exercise your Constitutional authority to provide pardons to DREAMers both retroactively and prospectively," read the letter.
DACA granted a two-year work renewable work permit to its recipients - often called "Dreamers" in reference to the DREAM Act - in addition to deferring any deportation actions related strictly to immigration violations.
Lofgren said other legal recourses could be sought to protect DACA recipients.
"Different lawyers have different opinions, we're asking the president to do it. If he's got a better idea, he can come back to us and tell us what that idea is," she said.
But a White House official told The Hill in an email that a presidential pardon would not grant legal status to DACA recipients.
"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," the official said.
If the incoming administration cancels DACA work permits, Lofgren said a presidential pardon would help recipients to remain in the country, but wouldn't convey legal status.
"They'd be in limbo. They wouldn't have a green card, 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.
She added that the pardon would also allow some DACA recipients to become eligible for visas.
People in the country illegally who are otherwise eligible for work-based, marriage or other visas are currently required to leave the country for up to 10 years in order to qualify for legal re-entry.
DACA beneficiaries face uncertainty as Trump's inauguration approaches. The president-elect promised during his campaign to rescind all of Obama's executive actions, including the one that established the program.
Trump said on "60 Minutes" Sunday that his first immigration priority would be to deport between 2 million and 3 million criminal aliens, but he didn't mention DACA.
Think tanks on both sides of the aisle estimate there are at least 1.9 million immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who have committed criminal offenses that render them deportable under current law.
The Republican National Committee did not return a request for comment.
Under DACA, recipients convicted of felonies, significant misdemeanors or three misdemeanors lose their benefit
DACA is available to undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country before the age of 16; were under 31 years old on June, 15 2012; have passed a background check and paid a fee; and are either in school, have a high school degree or are honorably discharged veterans.
In their letter, Lofgren, Gutierrez and Roybal-Allard warn that the Department of Homeland Security "now has fingerprints, home addresses, and other information to identify those DREAMers."
"They are more at risk because they registered," Gutierrez said.
Those who signed up for the program were also required to provide personal and biometric information to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
USCIS is the agency in charge of visas, naturalizations, and refugee and asylum claims. It is part of the Department of Homeland Security, but a separate agency from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is in charge of enforcing immigration laws in the interior of the country.