Paterson Tries to Make New York the Anti-Arizona State

By Seth Freed Wessler May 04, 2010

New York Governor David Paterson moved yesterday to affirm New York as the country’s anti-Arizona state. The New York Times reports today:

Gov. David A. Paterson announced on Monday that the state would accelerate consideration and granting of pardons to legal immigrants for old or minor criminal convictions, in an effort to prevent them from being deported.

Like the Arizona law, Paterson’s announcement sends a message to the federal government that changing immigration law is necessary. But unlike Arizona, Paterson has moved to protect and humanize immigrant communities, instead of to criminalize and terrorize them. He’s also taken a swipe at a set of laws passed in 1996 that require the deportation of anyone with a criminal conviction, regardless of their connections to the US, the amount of time they’ve lived here or whether or not they have children. By pardoning those with convictions, many could be spared mandatory deportation. The move has potential to be very important for documented immigrants who face deportation as a result of a criminal conviction, says Manisha Vaze, an organizer with the organization Families for Freedom in New York. "But," says Vaze, "it’s yet to be seen what criteria Paterson is considering for actually granting a pardon." Not everyone will be eligible for a pardon. According to Michelle Fei, who directs the Immigrant Defense Project, a New York City-based immigrant legal advocacy organization: "Because of the nature of immigration laws, people with certain convictions like for drugs and guns would not even be helped by a Governor’s pardon." Additionally, says Fei, Paterson’s decision to pardon immigrants does not include undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions. It may also exclude people with recent and very "serious" criminal convictions. "But," says Fei, "if the point of the panels is that New York believes in second chances, rehabilitation and renewal as Paterson says, then we think it should include all immigrants." Last year, ColorLines reported on the devastating impact of immigration policies that tear immigrant families apart as a result of policies that require the deportation of people with a broad list of criminal convictions. The story, Torn Apart by Deportation, followed 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 Kathy McArdle 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, who is now 11, and his partner. McArdle and her son are now members of Families for Freedom, and are fighting for changes to the law. But, because of the limited scope of Paterson’s pardon panels, says Fei, someone like James would not have been able to appeal for relief. In recent years, as the Bush and Obama administrations have broadened efforts to deport immigrants with records, more and more people who make their homes in the United States have been sent into permanent exile. Last year almost 100,000 people were deported as the result of a criminal conviction. This year, that number is projected to increase by 40 percent. Depending on how many people Paterson plans to pardon, that rate of growth could slow down. Paterson’s announcement comes just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defenders must inform immigrant clients of the potential immigration consequences that could be attached to taking a plea. In the past, many immigrants have taken plea agreements in order to get lesser sentences. The result, though, has been that many are signing their own deportation papers. Yet even as momentum grows in states and the courts to roll back the practices and policies that trigger the deportation of immigrants, the federal government continues to target people with convictions for deportation. Now, the Obama administration is moving forward with plans to broadly implement the Secure Communities program, which would check the immigration status of anyone booked into a jail or prison. The program is already showing signs of abuse and unaccountability, much like those well-documented in the controversial 287g local enforcement program. Whether or not Paterson will sign onto the Secure Communities program is still unknown, but his recent decision to consider pardoning immigrants with convictions would make such a move something of a hypocritical one. For now, immigrant communities wait and march in the streets to demand urgently needed change.