By Samuel Paramore, OC Immigrant Youth United
The Trump Administration continues to target the Cambodian community in its broader war against refugees, ordering up deportations for those with past criminal convictions who lost their green card status on account of them. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reportedly been seeking to deport over 2,000 Cambodians who fall under this criteria. Immigrant rights organizations, lawyers, and families fighting back have viewed pardons granted by the office of the governor in California as a key tool for keeping their clients and loved ones home in the United States of America.
That belief comes with good reason. Governor Gavin Newsom issued Kang Hen and Hay Hov, a pair of Cambodians in Northern California facing deportation, executive clemency on May 13 along with five other individuals, just ahead of their scheduled removal. In this, Newsom follows in the footsteps of former Governor Jerry Brown who granted pardons of his own to Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees as a means to boost their chances of staying put.
As for Newsom’s decision, his website states that he weighed “numerous factors…including self-development and public safety” in issuing the pardons. The governor is putting stock into the “good immigrant” narrative here. But was there a major difference between Hov’s past robbery charge and his subsequent self-development, versus the cases of many other undocumented Cambodians in California? The simple answer is, not really. The circumstances that led to his crime are common in a community deprived of opportunities.
The “good immigrant” narrative is utilized so that the belief in executive clemency as the most significant political action he should undertake is accepted. In doing so, the governor can appease liberal desires to deny Trump’s his compete goals, while also not implementing fundamental systemic change, never a real objective to begin with.
But that’s the only true solution. While a great celebration for Hen and Hov is in order, their pardons alone do nothing to alleviate the anxieties of many families and members of the community–aside from opening a sliver of hope in following in their footsteps. True reprieve for undocumented Cambodians doesn’t come with selective clemency but through mass clemency.
Pardoning an entire class of individuals whose cases fall under similar circumstances, so as to remove the target off their back, may sound radical. But this wouldn’t be an action wholly without precedent. By June 2001, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole granted mass clemency to a total of 139 permanent resident immigrants who fell at risk of deportation under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
That law allowed deportation of any undocumented individual by the mere existence of a misdemeanor on their record. The board formed to deal with the potential of a federal crisis on their hands, and responded by directly interacting with their immigrant communities, sending out word that anyone could come and petition for a pardon. In doing so, many broken families and lives were averted.
If Newsom can grant clemency on a robbery charge for reason of development in character or damage that their deportation would cause to the community at large, he can certainly do it to a mass of similar cases. Engaging with the Cambodian community and making a clear pathway to pardons could save as many or more immigrants than Georgia did, and would speak to a greater solidarity.
Otherwise, these singular deeds will always continue to fall short and can only help further the “the good immigrant” narrative of those who are deemed pardonable against those who are not.