In 1738, the French philosopher Voltaire wrote, "Love truth, but pardon error." Last week, New York Governor Paterson adhered to that maxim when he pardoned four Caribbean immigrants facing deportation.
Mario Benitez, Marlon Oscar Powell, Sanjay Broomfield and Darshini Ramsaran are nationals of the Caribbean - Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago/Guyana, respectively - who all entered the country legally and have lived in the United States, in some cases, longer than they have lived in the country of their birth. At some point in time, each had a brush with the law which, as non-citizens, now subjected them to deportation. Prior to 1996, aggravated felony - kidnapping, rape, murder and terrorism - was previously the threshold for deportation. Then President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, with a focus on enforcement and deportation. Under the Act, minor crimes - petty theft, shoplifting, low-level drug infractions and drunk driving - were now reclassified as aggravated felonies and added to the list of deportable offenses, along with minor traffic violations and urinating in public.
This past May, Governor Paterson announced his intention to establish a Special Immigration Board of Pardons to consider the cases of immigrants facing deportation due to old or minor criminal convictions. Last week, he issued a statement highlighting not only the immigrants who received pardons, but also his reasons. "The pardons I grant today address shortcomings in our Federal immigration laws relating to deportation," Governor Paterson said. "Our review of more than 1,100 pardon applications reveals that 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 for deserving individuals caught in the web of these laws."
Setting the standard at old or minor convictions was a sound decision on the part of the Governor. First, the provision provided some measure of relief from the draconian legislation enacted over a decade ago and applied retroactively. This is particularly true in the case of Marlon Oscar Powell, now 36 years old and being held in immigration detention pending deportation to Jamaica for a misdemeanor durg possession conviction that occurred when he was 15 years old.
Second, an individual who has been convicted of an offense - and served time for that offense - should not be penalized once again for the same conviction, especially if he/she has been turned his/her life around and is contributing productively to society. The Governor noted that 'rehabilitation' was a factor to be considered. Mario Benitez is the embodiment of rehabilitation. In 1998, Mr. Benitez pleaded guilty to selling a controlled substance and served three years in prison. Now 58 years old and the assistant director of finance for CUNY's Graduate School and University Center, Mr. Benitez was praised not only for his community service but also rising to "jobs with higher responsibility."
Third, by staving off deportation, the panel weighs the consquences the immigrants faces upon return, as in the case of Darshini Ramsaran, who was a victim of abuse. In two separate instances, she testified against her abusers, who were convicted and deported to Guyana. They have threatened Ms. Ramsaran and could harm her if she was deported.
Arlene M. Roberts is the author of The Faces of Detention and Deportation: A Report on the Forced Repatriation of Immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean.