In a jab at President Donald Trump’s promises to crack down on illegal immigration, Gov. Andrew Cuomo Wednesday pardoned 18 immigrants in an effort to free them from the threat of deportation or other immigration-related issues.
The pardons targeted those who had committed low-level offenses and had demonstrated significant rehabilitation since their convictions, Alphonso David, the governor’s chief counsel, said in an interview.
“New York is a state of immigrants,” David said. “And most of these individuals made mistakes decades ago, and have been contributing members to our society.”
With the new slate of pardons, Cuomo nearly tripled the number he had issued explicitly to stave off deportations, his office said. Before Wednesday, the governor had pardoned seven people for that purpose.
This is the second time that the governor has wielded clemency as a direct rebuke to Trump’s immigration policies. The president has directed immigration officials to prioritize the deportation of any undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, even low-level ones.
In June, Cuomo pardoned Carlos Cardona, an immigrant from Colombia who had volunteered with Sept. 11 recovery efforts and who had been detained by immigration officials since February. Cardona had spent 45 days in jail after pleading guilty to selling a small amount of cocaine to an undercover officer.
“While the federal government continues to target immigrants and threatens to tear families apart with deportation, these actions take a critical step toward a more just, more fair and more compassionate New York,” Cuomo said in a statement Wednesday.
Alina Das, an associate professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law and co-director of its Immigrant Rights Clinic, said the degree to which the pardons would ensure freedom from deportation depended on the type of conviction. The pardons might render some people not deportable at all, Das said, while for others it would simply move them to the back of the line.
“Either way, it allows people to have a chance to stay in the U.S. with their families,” said Das, who represented two of the people who were pardoned.
Several states have taken it upon themselves to use pardons as a political tool, Das said. While many of the states that have done so in recent months have been left-leaning, such as New York and California, she said other states, such as Georgia, have also done so under previous administrations.
“I think there is an increasing awareness that states will have to step in to protect immigrants,” she said. “Certainly during this current administration, when immigration enforcement has been as extensive and harsh as it has been, it has really shed light on the importance of governors using their power to grant clemency.”
But Philip Kasinitz, a sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who specializes in immigration, cautioned that the pardons might be an unreliable safeguard against deportation.
“I think we’re having a hard time getting a grasp on exactly what the priorities of the new administration are,” Kasinitz said. “Lots of people without criminal convictions are suddenly being deported who hadn’t been for a long time. So it’s not clear how uniform the procedures and priorities actually are.”
For some of those pardoned, the threat of deportation had loomed large for years. Alexander Shilov, 36, who came to the United States with his mother from Estonia in 1999, said he had received an order of removal in 2001. The order had followed him through several petty larceny convictions between 2000 and 2003, he said, and through his stint in rehab, his studies for his GED diploma and his employment as a nurse.
He checked in every year with immigration officials, Shilov said, but he never felt he was a high priority for deportation. But when he reported for his annual check-in in March, the first time under the new administration, the officials questioned him more closely than usual, he said.
Shilov said he had been planning to apply for citizenship through his mother, who was naturalized in 2007, or through his fiancée, who is also a citizen. But with the petty larceny convictions on his record, he said, “it was for me a matter of ‘if’” — that is, whether or not the attorney general would grant him citizenship despite his convictions.
Now that he has been pardoned, he said, “it just becomes a matter of when.”
“It feels like a dream,” Shilov said. “I’m grateful and humble and hopeful and I’m very optimistic. I believe in good deeds.”
Cuomo also pardoned 39 people who had committed misdemeanors or nonviolent crimes when they were 16 or 17 years old, a continuation of an initiative begun in 2015 to forgive those who had remained conviction free for at least a decade. In 2016, its inaugural year, Cuomo pardoned 101 youthful offenders.
The governor also commuted two sentences.
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