ALBANY, N.Y. – Gov. David Paterson stepped into the immigration debate Monday, saying he would create the nation's first "pardon panel" to investigate requests of legal immigrants facing deportation because of past convictions.
Paterson, proposing the measure as the nation is embroiled in conflict over an Arizona law that critics say would encourage racial profiling, said he would pardon immigrants if they meet requirements including rehabilitation and demonstrate they're not a danger to society.
Paterson is seeking to combat what he calls harsh and rigid federal measures that result in deporting of immigrants who have shown considerable rehabilitation.
Arizona's measure makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally. It directs local police to question people about immigration status and demand to see their documents if there is reason to suspect they are in the U.S. illegally. With the federal government's failure to secure the border, Arizona has become a major gateway for drug smuggling and human trafficking from Mexico.
Paterson said he will seek to use a governor's pardon as a tool to blunt what he called the rigid federal rules for deportation even of immigrants who have successfully engaged in a new life in America.
"To be sure, there are some individuals whose crimes are egregious or who pose a threat to public safety. And they are justly removed from the United States," Paterson said. "But there are others for whom the situation is far less clear. For them, our national immigration laws leave no room to consider mitigating circumstances. But in New York, we believe in rehabilitation. And we believe in renewal. And we believe in second chances."
The National Conference of State Legislatures says immigration bills are proliferating, with more than 1,500 introduced last year, but none like Paterson's idea. The National Governors Association also knew of no similar effort.
Paterson's staff said they know of just a handful of cases that could qualify for a pardon at this point, but expect more after Monday's announcement. The panel will comprise executive branch workers, and no extra cost is expected.
"It's an important initiative to try to provide at least some measure of sanity into the current immigration mess," said Steven Banks, attorney at the New York City Legal Aid Society. "Longtime New Yorkers can be removed from this country as a result of a relatively minor incident in the remote past."
In March, Paterson pardoned Quing Wu, an executive and Chinese immigrant who as a teenager was convicted of a mugging.
"After completing his sentence, finding a job, becoming engaged and living as a productive member of society, he applied to become a United States citizen," Paterson said. "Because of his convictions, Mr. Wu was detained for months and set for deportation to China, a country he left when he was 5 years old and to which he has no connection. To correct this injustice, I pardoned Quing Wu. He had paid his debt."