Governor Paterson’s Pardon Panel Sets a Better Example than Arizona

In the absence of a national comprehensive immigration reform, individual states are coming up with their own immigration laws and policies.  Two of the most notable state actions include the signing of SB 1070 in Arizona by Governor Jan Brewer and a decision by Governor Paterson of New York to offer more pardons to legal permanent residents facing deportation.

The bill recently signed into law in Arizona criminalizes undocumented migrants by making undocumented migration a crime of trespassing – the punishment for which will involve a fine and jail time. In United States law, there is no punishment for being undocumented, as being undocumented is not a crime. Deportation is not considered punishment; it is a civil sanction. Deportation is outside the purview of most Constitutional protections. For this reason, immigration agents can detain people without establishing reasonable suspicion and non-citizens are not afforded counsel in deportation proceedings. In Arizona, police officers will be trained to enforce immigration laws and will turn suspected undocumented migrants over to federal immigration agents to be deported. Arizona officials cannot deport anyone.

As Jessie pointed out in a recent post, the Arizona law is tied to white supremacist organizations. In stark contrast to the Arizona law which makes undocumented immigration a crime, New York Governor Paterson announced on Monday that he will establish a special five-member state panel to review the cases of legal permanent residents convicted of crimes to determine whether or not they merit a governor’s pardon.

Governor Paterson’s panel, unlike the immigration court system, can take into account the severity of the crime, the ties to the US, and lack of ties to the home country of legal permanent residents convicted of aggravated felonies to decide whether or not a non-citizen should be deported. Under current law, non-citizens convicted of aggravated felonies face automatic deportation. Immigration judges cannot take into account any personal circumstances. Aggravated felonies include a wide array of crimes – some of which are actually 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 nearly all of their lives have been deported for shoplifting Tylenol, for smoking marijuana and for forging checks.

Once the judge determines that a crime meets the definition of an aggravated felony, the non-citizen faces deportation. It does not matter if the person was adopted by a US citizen as an infant or came to the US as an adult – a conviction of an aggravated felony automatically leads to a deportation. There are only two ways for a person convicted of an aggravated felony can avoid deportation – a governor’s pardon or a presidential pardon. Until now, very few pardons have been granted.

Governor Paterson’s decision to implement a panel to review pardon cases 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.

State senators across the United States are proposing to take immigration laws into their own hands. Unfortunately, most states are looking to follow the path of Arizona and criminalize immigrants. Few states are proposing to provide relief for legal permanent residents convicted of crimes. This is an aspect of immigration law that needs to be changed at the federal level. For now, however, state governors could show the need for this by implementing panels similar to that of Governor Paterson.

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. (See this site for more information about aggravated felonies.).   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 perceived as not being tough on crime. Who wants to stand up for “criminal aliens”?

I commend Governor Paterson for standing up for what is right and encourage other Governors to take similar action. 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 American Studies and Sociology at the University of Kansas. She blogs about immigration policy at: