ALBANY — 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.
The move sets up a confrontation between the governor and federal immigration officials, who have taken more aggressive action to increase deportations in recent years. Immigration lawyers on both sides called the step extraordinary and said it could ultimately affect thousands of people in New York.
“Some of our immigration laws, particularly with respect to deportation, are embarrassingly and wrongly inflexible,” Paterson said in a speech on Monday at an annual gathering of the state’s top judges. “In New York we believe in renewal,” he added. “In New York, we believe in rehabilitation.”
Paterson is establishing a special five-member state panel to review the cases; while few such cases are currently pending, the administration expects an influx of hundreds of new pardon applications by the end of the year.
The move thrusts the governor into the middle of the country’s immigration debate and could give new hope to legal immigrants facing deportation.
Paterson said the new policy was in the works weeks before Arizona enacted a law late last month to give the police there broad authority to question people about their immigration status. It was spurred in part by his pardon in March of Qing Hong Wu, a 29-year-old information technology executive who The New York Times reported had been threatened with deportation because he participated in a series of muggings as a 14-year-old. He had not lived in his native China since he was 5.
“We just feel that some of these charges are very minor in nature and some of these conversations go back beyond a decade for people who’ve demonstrated that they’ve lived productive lives in the interim,” Paterson said. “We’re separating these cases from ones where there are egregious crimes.”
The White House referred calls to the Department of Homeland Security, which would not comment directly on the governor’s plan.
“DHS continues to focus on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities,” Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the agency, said. “At the same time, we are applying common sense and using discretion on a case-by-case basis to ensure that our enforcement is meeting our priorities.”
Paterson does not need legislative approval to undertake the new policy. Federal immigration laws enacted in 1996 greatly expanded the categories of legal immigrants subject to mandatory deportation as “aggravated felons,” including people who had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drug possession.
For years after the laws’ passage, immigration authorities had neither the resources nor the political will to track down or detain legal permanent residents with relatively minor convictions. Because of that, many people years ago pleaded guilty to criminal charges in exchange for probation or no jail time, without having been advised by their lawyers that the plea made them subject to deportation.