Governor Paterson announced on Monday that he will establish a special five-member state panel to review the cases of people facing deportation to determine whether or not they deserve a governor’s pardon.
This is very different from what is going on in Arizona. Arizona is attempting to change the nature of immigration law by criminalizing civil offenses. Governor Paterson is not changing any laws. He is simply taking on more actively a power he already has – the power to grant pardons. Since 1996, over 100,000 legal permanent residents have been deported from the United States due to criminal convictions – many of them for minor crimes. There are only two ways for a person convicted of an aggravated felony to avoid deportation –a governor’s pardon or a presidential pardon.
Governor Paterson’s panel will review the cases of legal permanent residents facing deportation on the basis of criminal convictions. Under current law, non-citizens convicted of aggravated felonies face automatic deportation. The deportation is automatic insofar as immigration judges cannot take into account either their ties to the Untied States or their lack of ties to their home country. Once the judge determines that a crime meets the definition of an aggravated felony, the non-citizen faces deportation.
Aggravated felonies include a wide array of crimes – including misdemeanors. For example, a shoplifting conviction with a suspended sentence of one year counts as an aggravated felony. People who have been legal residents of the United States for their entire lives have been deported for shoplifting baby clothes and Tylenol. This panel will do what immigration judges cannot – they will take into account family ties, the nature of the crime, and the potential effects of the deportation on the non-citizen’s family in the United States.
I have spent the past year interviewing deportees in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Brazil. I have met many people whose cases potentially would have been viewed favorably by such a panel. O’Ryan, for example, moved to the US from Jamaica when he was 6 years old. In his early twenties, O’Ryan was a passenger in a car where drugs were found. He was sentenced to three to nine years for drug trafficking. He chose to do boot camp, so he only spent 18 months in jail. After serving his time, he was deported to Jamaica.
All of O’Ryan’s family members are US citizens. He also had applied for citizenship, but the application was still pending when he was arrested. O’Ryan has only distant relatives in Jamaica. When I met him, he had been in Jamaica for seven years and saw his deportation as a cruel punishment for a mistake for which he had already paid.
O’Ryan deserved to have his case heard by such a panel. The immigration judge could only take into account the fact that O’Ryan had been convicted of drug trafficking – a crime which automatically leads to deportation. A panel, however, could have taken into account the fact that O’Ryan had been in the US since he was six, has a US citizen daughter, and has no ties to Jamaica.
Our immigration laws are desperately in need of reform. Most of the legislative proposals in Congress, however, do not propose to change the overly punitive laws regarding the deportation of legal permanent residents convicted of crimes. Few lawmakers wish to be seen as not being tough on crime. I commend Governor Paterson for standing up for what is right. It is right and it is in line with our values as a nation to allow people facing deportation to have their cases heard. It is wrong to deport people without taking into consideration their ties to the United States and the effects of their deportation on their lives and on the lives of their families.
TANYA GOLASH-BOZA is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Kansas.