Legal Experts: Immigration Officials Might Challenge Newsom’s Criminal Immigrant Pardons

Legal Experts: Immigration Officials Might Challenge Newsom’s Criminal Immigrant Pardons
California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference at the California State Capitol on Aug. 16, 2019 in Sacramento, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently granted four pardons and two commutations. Among those pardoned were immigrants Victor Ayala from El Salvador, Arnou Aghamalian from Iran, and Thear Seam from Cambodia, all immigrants or refugees who arrived in the United States as children or teenagers.

Because of California’s sanctuary policies, the governor’s move is raising questions regarding his motives.

According to the governor’s office, Newsom doesn’t come by the decision to respond to clemency petitions lightly, as he “weighs numerous factors in his review of clemency applications, including an applicant’s self-development and conduct since the offense, whether the grant is consistent with public safety and in the interest of justice, and the impact of a grant on the community.”

All three men are in the United States legally, however since they are not citizens, they could still face deportation for their criminal convictions.

Newsom admitted that the pardons could help prevent “deportation and permanent family separation,” using similar rhetoric to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who granted clemency to at least seven individuals facing deportation last year.
In California, Ayala, 38, a legal immigrant from El Salvador, had three convictions for misdemeanor theft, felony theft, and a hit-and-run between 1999 and 2001, while Aghmalian, a 42-year-old Iranian refugee, was arrested and convicted in 1999 for helping others to set fire to a nightclub owner’s car. He’s now the owner of a solar energy company and the father of newborn twins, according to Fox News.

Seam, the 41-year-old Cambodian refugee, was convicted in 1996 for robbery and for serving as an accessory to a high-speed chase involving a wanted fugitive attempting to evade arrest.

While the pardoned immigrants will now have the ability to obtain jobs and be active members of society without being hindered by their criminal history, Nora V. Demleitner, the Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law in Washington and Lee University in Virginia, told The Epoch Times that Newsom’s pardon is not a guarantee that the federal government won’t push deportation procedures.

President Donald Trump’s Attorney General William Barr stated in a recent immigrant case decision that “any state change to a sentence made to impact immigration consequences (or based on rehabilitation) will have no impact on the enforcement of federal law,” Demleitner said.

In this case, federal rules can still be applied and convictions might not be affected by pardons granted by Newsom, the professor added.

“[While Barr’s decision] ostensibly focuses only on judicial changes to sentences, not on gubernatorial pardons,” Demleitner told The Epoch Times, “it is likely that the attorney general will attempt to apply similar reasoning to pardons.”

Demleitner said Newsom may have focused on these immigrants in particular because he might deem deportation “an excessive punishment.”

“Note that many of these convictions are quite old, and some of the offenders were quite young at the time. That means the individuals could demonstrate rehabilitation and the fact that they are now an asset to the state,” she said.

Prem Kumar, the CEO of immigrant service provider Visa Tutor, told The Epoch Times, “the threat of deportation is relatively strong if an immigrant is convicted and subject to deportation proceedings.”

The Department of Homeland Security deported about 295,000 immigrants in 2017 due to criminal history, said Kumar.

Demleitner told The Epoch Times that in a number of cases, immigrants were deported despite receiving pardons.

If anything, she said, Newsom’s pardons “[test] the interplay between state and federal powers and the state’s control over its criminal justice system,” and may serve as examples to other states in the future.

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