Gov. Paterson’s Mixed Messages on New York Deportations

His symbolic pardons point to the deportation dragnet's problems, but at the same time he's welcomed its expansion in his state.

By Seth Freed Wessler Dec 08, 2010

New York Gov. David Paterson announced the pardons of six New Yorkers on Monday, all of whom were to be deported as a result of old criminal convictions. The move was seen as a high-profile swipe at federal immigration policy, which has become increasingly indiscriminate in deportations. In May, the governor announced the creation of a pardon panel to consider the cases of non-citizens with convictions. The five-person panel selected just six cases from a list of 1,100 petitions for clemency, according to the New York Times. More pardons are expected before the end of the year.

Patterson told the Times the panel is necessary because, "Federal immigration laws are often inflexible, arbitrarily applied and excessively harsh, resulting in the deportation of individuals who have paid the price for their crimes and are now making positive contributions to our society. These pardons represent an attempt to achieve fairness and justice."

Yet, the decision to pardon the six, who included a financial administrator at the City University of New York, is overshadowed by another of the governor’s decisions, also in May, to sign onto the Secure Communities program. The program, which the federal government claims targets only serious criminal offenders by checking the immigration status of anyone booked into participating local jails, has resulted in mostly the deportation of non-citizens, tens of thousands of them, with minor criminal convictions or no convictions at all.

On Thursday of this week, advocates will rally at 11 am. in front of Gov. Paterson’s New York City office, to demand the program be terminated. Arguments against Secure Communities closely echo the statements made by Paterson in explaining his pardons, mainly, that the deportation system is excessively harsh and arbitrary.

People with old criminal convictions who have long ago served jail time are vulnerable to deportation now because of a broadly punitive set of immigration laws that were passed in 1996. Last year, ColorLines reported the story of Calvin James, whom we met while reporting from Jamaica. James was convicted of a drug crime decades ago. In the time that followed, he met his girlfriend and the couple had a child. But after living together for several years, ICE arrived at his door, arrested him and placed him in a detention center. He was soon deported to Jamaica, a place he had not seen since he was a little boy when he immigrated to New York with his mother. He is now permanently separated from his son and his partner.

The 1996 laws have also spurred the deportations of an unknown number of people who have no conviction at all. In October, ColorLines reported on the story of Shahed Hossain, a young man who’d lived in Texas since the age of 11 after immigrating there from Bangladesh with his parents. Hossain had a green card and was soon to be a citizen, but he was removed from his home over a trifle: He accidentally told a border guard he was a citizen rather than a permanent resident, thus triggering automatic deportation based on a clause of the 1996 law. The story reveals just how indiscriminate the expanding deportation dragnet has become.

Secure Communities is among the most roughshod elements in the deportation machine. Paterson’s announcement to pardon six New Yorkers aims, he says, to address the "shortcomings in our federal immigration laws relating to deportation." But if the governor is at all serious about that, he’d have little choice to end the Secure Communities program in New York before leaving office. The pardons are simply too small an act in the face of an expanding and unchecked deportation system.