Editorial: A Reminder About American Values

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Pubdate: Wed, 5 May 2010
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Contact: letters@nytimes.com


Gov. David Paterson of New York made a brave — and startling — move on Monday to create a board to consider pardons for immigrant New Yorkers who are on a fast-track to deportation because of old or minor criminal convictions. He said he wanted to inject fairness into an “embarrassingly and wrongly inflexible” system that expels immigrants without discretion, without considering the circumstances of a person’s life or family, or even holding hearings to consider the possibility that deportation might be unwise or unjust.

Mr. Paterson’s decision is a response to the government’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws that have greatly broadened the definition of “aggravated felonies” for which noncitizens are subject to mandatory deportation.

The category used to apply just to serious crimes like murder and drug trafficking, but it has come to include a vast array of nonviolent, even trivial misdemeanors. Under the law, minor drug offenses or even shoplifting can count as “aggravated felonies,” and this stringent view can be applied retroactively. Immigrants can be deported for decades-old convictions of crimes that were not “aggravated felonies” back then.

The harsh laws have been coupled with harsh enforcement; the Obama administration has arrested and deported tens of thousands of legal immigrants with a zeal that has gone to extremes.

In one case, now before the United States Supreme Court, the government maintains that a Texas man’s two misdemeanor convictions — one for less than two ounces of marijuana and one for a single Xanax pill without a prescription — make him a “drug trafficker” subject to mandatory deportation with no right to a hearing in which a judge could consider the absurdity of the case.

Mr. Paterson has shown courage and common sense at a time when the national debate about immigration shows little of either. His move was unconnected to the radicalism in Arizona, which just passed a law making criminals of every undocumented person within its borders, and greatly empowering the police to arrest people they suspect are here illegally.

But it inevitably calls to mind the bad example of Arizona. “In New York, we believe in rehabilitation,” Mr. Paterson said, adding that his five-member board would consider pardons judiciously, distinguishing minor offenders from dangerous criminals. His action repudiates the growing belief that only tougher and more rigid enforcement should be applied to all immigrants who run afoul of the law, with expulsion as the first and last goal.

This is not how the United States, in its best moments, deals with newcomers. We’re grateful for the reminder from the governor of New York.