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Donald Trump will soon sweep into the office of the U.S. presidency, buttressed by both houses of Congress firmly in Republican control. A wave of regressive executive orders and legislation are already being prepared to ensure that Trump’s first 100 days effectively erase the Obama presidency. Where Trump was once the most prominent “birther,” attempting to deny President Barack Obama’s legitimacy with a racist campaign accusing him of being born in Kenya, Trump now will wield a pen to legally undermine Obama’s legacy. But Barack Obama is still the president of the United States until Jan. 20, and retains the enormous executive powers that the office bestows. That is why a swelling grass-roots movement is now urging Obama to use executive clemency and the presidential pardon to protect the nation’s millions of undocumented immigrants from the mass deportations Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail.
In case some think Trump’s deportation pledge is mere bluster, the Reuters news agency reported Tuesday on an internal Department of Homeland Security memo that summarized a December meeting between the Trump transition team and the agency. According to Reuters, the Trump transition team asked for details on border wall construction, the capacity for increased immigrant detention, and about the ability to restore aggressive aerial surveillance of the southern border (which was scaled back by the Obama administration). Chillingly, they also asked if any DHS staff had “altered biographic information kept by the department about immigrants out of concern for their civil liberties.”
This last question betrays a likely Trump transition team concern that federal employees may be purging databases of identifying information from the more than 740,000 young people who registered with the government under DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program initiated in June 2012. On Dec. 5, a group of 106 members of Congress wrote to President Obama, urging him to protect such information: “Countless community advocates, organizers, and public servants have promoted the DACA program to Dreamers on the premise that the information they supply to DHS would not be used to deport them in the future. We cannot stand by and allow the Trump Administration to exploit the trust these young Americans placed in us and the government,” the letter read in part. In addition to name, date of birth, fingerprint and other biometric data, DHS also collects home address, which could endanger other family members who lack legal U.S. immigration documentation.
The Obama administration has already taken similar action after Trump’s election, formally shutting down the NSEER program, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System created in 2002 as part of the “Global War on Terror.” The program targeted people from specific countries with majority Muslim populations, and was shut down by Obama to prevent its use as part of a Muslim registry. Locally, cities like New York also are preparing to push back. Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to protect the information of more than 850,000 immigrants who hold the city’s municipal identification card. Numerous cities are becoming immigrant-protective sanctuary cities, or are reaffirming their status as such, in response to Trump’s threatened mass deportations.
A number of members of Congress, along with groups like the Hispanic Coalition NY and the Dream Action Coalition, are asking President Obama to go further than protecting the DACA data, and to extend a presidential pardon to all who applied for DACA. And renowned linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky has taken this idea further, saying Obama “should proceed to what is in fact an urgent necessity: to grant a general pardon to 11 million people who are living and working here, productive citizens in all but name, threatened with deportation by the incoming administration. This would be a horrible humanitarian tragedy. And moral outrage can be averted by a general pardon for immigration infractions, which the president could issue. And we should join to urge him to carry out this necessary step without delay.”
“The power to pardon is one of the least limited powers granted to the President in the Constitution,” James Pfiffner wrote for the conservative Heritage Foundation, back in 2007. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson granted amnesty to Confederate rebels. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter gave amnesty to the more than 200,000 Americans charged with resisting the draft during the Vietnam War (Donald Trump didn’t need the amnesty; he got four draft deferments for college and one for an alleged bone spur). Forty years after Carter, President Obama can use his immense power of the presidential pardon to de-escalate the war on immigrants, which otherwise, under Trump, threatens to get immeasurably worse.