LOS ANGELES — A new California law is expected to speed up the state’s criminal pardon process in a move that advocates hope will offer relief for some facing the possibility of deportation.
California Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed into law a bill that requires the state parole board to consider an expedited review of pardon applications from individuals at risk of deportation.
The law also requires the board to issue recommendations within a year of receiving a pardon application and to notify individuals when their application is received and when a recommendation is issued. There are currently no statutory requirements for how long the parole board has to review or issue recommendations for pardon and commutation applications. The law is slated to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.
The legislation, called the Pardon and Commutation Reform Act of 2018, was introduced in the California legislature earlier this year by Assembly Member Rob Bonta, a Democrat representing part of the San Francisco Bay Area and chair of the state's Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.
“We think this is reform that’s been needed, and we appreciate and applaud Gov. Brown and his team for signing it and being willing to commit to some needed changes around transparency and responsiveness in the pardon process,” Bonta said.
In California, individuals who are convicted of a crime and have been rehabilitated can apply for a pardon or reduced sentence if they have demonstrated exemplary behavior. A pardon doesn't eliminate a conviction, but it restores certain rights individuals lose as a result of a conviction, such as the right to serve on a jury.
For immigrants facing deportation, a pardon does not necessarily erase a deportation order. But it can help re-open an order for individuals facing removal because of a state criminal conviction, said Angela Chan, policy director and senior staff attorney managing the criminal justice reform program at the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, which supported the legislation.
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“It’s really critical and one of the only ways to stop deportation in these particular types of cases,” she said. “It allows the immigration attorney or the individual themselves to challenge the basis of the deportation order.”
According to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), another organization that backed the bill, at least 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans – many of whom came to the United States as refugee children – have final orders of removal. Due to the history of conflict between the United States and Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the three countries have been slower in accepting individuals ordered deported from the U.S.
But advocates say deportations have risen under President Donald Trump’s administration.
In fiscal year 2017, the Vietnamese community saw a sharp rise in deportations, with 71 nationals deported, compared to 35 in 2016. In the Cambodian community, deportations have averaged about 48 per year over the last four fiscal years.
SEARAC estimates that about 72 Cambodians have been deported so far in 2018, with 43 deported earlier this year and about 30 removed in late August.
An ICE spokesperson did not respond to a request for the number of Southeast Asians that have been deported this year but said full figures are scheduled to be released before the end of the year.
Staff at SEARAC said they expect to see a few dozen more Cambodians deported by the end of the year. Because the new law is slated to take effect in 2019, it won't be able to help those cases.
Still, advocates say the law could benefit individuals like Ny Nourn, who faces deportation.
Nourn was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001 for her role in the killing of a person she had been in a relationship with by an allegedly abusive partner. On appeal, her conviction was reduced to second-degree murder in 2006, and she was sentenced to 15 years to life, down from an original life sentence.
She was released in November 2017 and has since become a fellow at the Asian Law Caucus, where she advocates for detainees and deportees. She is currently helping organize a campaign to pardon at least 20 Cambodian refugees facing deportation, she said.
While she lives in uncertainty, Nourn said the new law has made her feel hopeful.
“This pardon would allow us the opportunity to further our life, meaning, making amends with the community, going back to school, getting an education, building careers, just being able to connect with families in the communities,” she said.
Since 2011, Brown has issued 1,186 pardons, according to his office, compared to 28 combined total pardons over the last three governors. Brown's office does not track the number of pardons granted to individuals at risk of deportation, according to Evan Westrup, Brown's press secretary.
The governor has pardoned multiple people of Southeast Asian descent who faced deportation, including two in March and two others late last year.
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