Monday, March 4, 2013

An Act of Clemency

Obama has been the least lenient president in this country's history. Fact. Up until this weekend, Obama had only pardoned 22 people in his entire administration, compared to more than a hundred for his predecessor George W. Bush. The twelve individuals the president pardoned almost double the number of people who have received a new start.

The presidential pardon is one of the executive branch's most important and paradoxically underused powers. The president has nearly unlimited power to grant clemency to whomever he or she wishes and yet because that proposition tends to run afoul of some special interest, the pardon is increasingly rare in the modern presidency.

Which is what makes one particular recipient of the pardons this weekend so interesting. An Na Peng was pardoned after her 1996 conviction for an immigration violation. The case is somewhat complicated, An Na admitted to a visa violation before realizing that such an admission rendered her vulnerable to deportation. Well, she's now been pardoned, which means she can now go through the same process any immigrant does to become a citizen of this country. I, for one, wish her the best of luck.

This one case offers an interesting precedent for the future. At the moment, a bipartisan group of six is working on reforming the immigration system of this country. One of the issues hotly debated right now is whether or not to offer a path to citizenship for the millions upon millions of undocumented immigrants in this country. There is a sizable faction of the Republican Party (perhaps the majority) that wishes to deny this. Romney vision of 'self-deportation' has been soundly defeated, but the Republicans are understandably reluctant to permit the millions of people currently dwelling in the shadows of this system access to the vote. They sense, entirely correctly, that these millions will not be inclined to vote red after the decades of electioneering and demagoguing against them.

I would like, before I set out a radical proposal, to maintain that a bipartisan bill approved by both houses of the legislature after rigorous debate is the best way to go about immigration reform. It is the course least likely to result in social strife and abuses of the system, and the one most in keeping with this country's democratic values.

However.

However, if for some reason the congress can't get together to enact legislation giving the millions upon millions of people a legitimate path towards legal citizenship in the country they have so obviously adopted as their own, there is another course.

The president could pardon them.

The power to grant clemency is nearly unlimited by the Constitution of the United States. An example of a similar mass pardon occurred in 1977 when Carter pardoned draft dodgers, one of his first acts when he gained office. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who had immigrated to America were allowed to rejoin American society, the crime of avoiding selective service forgiven.

Perhaps a blanket pardon isn't even necessary. Perhaps Obama can simply pardon those brought to this country when they were children. I'm not sure it even matters. The point is, perhaps a threat will suffice, a significant lever for bringing about the enfranchisement of millions of Americans. Americans well motivated to vote for progressive causes and an end to the gridlock currently pinioning Washington.
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