Amid a brewing legal battle with the Trump administration over California's liberal immigration policies, Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday granted pre-Easter pardons to five immigrants facing possible deportation.
They were among 56 pardons and 14 commutations that the Democratic governor handed down ahead of the Sunday holiday. The majority were convicted of drug-related or other nonviolent crimes, according to Brown's office.
Executive clemency is particularly significant for immigrants, since they can be deported for old convictions, even if they have legal resident status. By forgiving their criminal records, Brown eliminates the grounds on which they could be targeted for removal from the country.
"These are individuals who have turned their lives around and deserve a second chance," said UCLA School of Law Professor Ingrid Eagly, who represents two of the immigrants pardoned Friday. She added that the stakes are higher since the election of President Donald Trump, who has emphasized stricter immigration enforcement.
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"Under the current administration, there's much more of a focus on deportation. More individuals are being picked up and placed into deportation proceedings," Early said. "There's also less discretion being exercised by immigration agents on the ground and by immigration prosecutors."
The pardoned immigrants are:
- Sokha Chhan, who is in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement pending deportation to Cambodia. He came to the United States at the age of 13 to escape the Khmer Rouge regime and has lived here for 35 years. Chhan was sentenced in 2002 for inflicting corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant and threatening a crime with the intent to terrorize, both misdemeanors; he served three years probation and 364 days in jail. In his clemency application, one his five children, whom Chhan raised as a single father, wrote that he had shown her "what it meant to be a loving and independent individual."
- Daniel Maher, who has publicly advocated for immigrants with a criminal record to have an opportunity for redemption. Maher moved to California from Macau legally when he was 3 years old, according to KQED, but he never applied for citizenship and he lost his green card when he was sentenced in 1995 for kidnapping, robbery and using a firearm. He served five years in prison, before being released early for good behavior, and three years on parole. Maher now oversees the curbside recycling program in Berkeley and has been recognized by the city for training at-risk youth for green jobs. He was detained, but not deported, by ICE in 2015.
- Phann Pheach, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the United States at the age of 1, according to a GoFundMe account set up by his wife. Pheach was convicted in 2005 for possession of a controlled substance for sale and obstructing a police officer; he served six months in prison and 13 months on parole. Pheach has been detained by ICE and is facing deportation proceedings to Cambodia, "a place he never once knew," his wife wrote on the fundraising page for his legal defense. "He is the glue that holds his family together," she added. "I am crumbling apart without my husband, who I have been with for over 10 years."
- Francisco Acevedo Alaniz, who was convicted for vehicle theft in 1997 and served five months in prison and 13 months probation. In his clemency application, he reported being active in his church and volunteering with a youth sports program.
- Sergio Mena, who was sentenced in 2003 for possession of a controlled substance for sale and served three years probation.
Immigration has been at the center of a political showdown between California and the Trump administration. Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions filed suit against California for three new laws passed last year to protect immigrants living in California illegally.
Brown slammed Sessions for "initiating a reign of terror" against immigrants in California and accused the federal government of "basically going to war" against the state. Days later, Trump visited California for the first time as president and dismissed the state as "totally out of control."
During the past year, as federal immigration authorities have escalated their enforcement efforts, Brown has regularly included immigrants in his annual Easter and Christmas acts of clemency.
Before Christmas, Brown pardoned two Northern California men who came to the United States as children when their families fled Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime. They were on the verge of being deported for decades-old felony charges.
He granted pardons last Easter to three men who served in the U.S. military but were deported to Mexico after serving sentences for crimes ranging from burglary to animal cruelty.
One of those men, Hector Barajas, was granted citizenship this week, while another, Marco Chavez, returned to the United States in December. Those developments were made possible by Brown's pardon.
Individuals who have completed their sentence, lived crime-free for a decade and received a court-issued certificate of rehabilitation can apply for a pardon. The potential benefits include being able to own a gun or serve on juries.
Friday's pardons also included Fernanda Lisa Sencion, a former resident of Sacramento who was sentenced in 1987 for voluntary manslaughter after she shot a man who had sexually assaulted her five-year-old son. She served ten years probation, 60 days in a work program and 200 hours in an alternative sentencing program.
Sencion now volunteers her time with a faith-based crisis center, the pardon noted. An individual involved with her charity work praised the "impact she has had on countless young women's lives."
"Her entire life is a testament to the ability to overcome circumstances and environment," they wrote.
Brown has now handed down 1,115 pardons, along with 51 commutations of sentences, since returning to office in 2011, far more than any other governor in modern California history.