Asian-American state lawmakers, along with immigrant and civil rights advocates, are urging Gov. Jerry Brown to immediately pardon dozens of Southeast Asian refugees facing deportation.
This group of refugees — mostly from Cambodia — are permanent legal residents, and most have lived in the U.S. since they were children. But in past years they were convicted of crimes, some of them gang-related. Because of that, immigration authorities have stripped them of their legal immigration status.
The refugees seeking pardons have been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and could be deported before the end of the year.
Advocates are turning to the governor because if the criminal convictions are pardoned, the refugees could reopen their cases in immigration court and fight deportation.
East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who joined the call for Brown to intercede, said these longtime California residents have served their time and are now fully rehabilitated and contributing to society. And he condemned ICE for targeting the refugees, which he says is part of a broader hostility of the Trump administration toward immigrants.
"California immigrants are under full frontal assault from the federal administration. Period," said Bonta at a San Francisco press conference held by the Asian Law Caucus on Wednesday. "We believe — the API Caucus and our California Legislature — that we should do, and must do, everything in our power to stand up for, defend and protect our immigrants."
Angela Chan, policy director of the Asian Law Caucus, said the refugees and their families came to this country because of the violence in Southeast Asia that resulted from the U.S. war in Vietnam and related upheavals. She said it is ironic that decades later, the U.S. is trying to deport them back to those countries. But Chan asserted that the state government also played a role.
"California's prison boom and harsh criminal laws over the past three decades have contributed to the criminalization of many Southeast Asian-Americans, who came to the country as refugees, and were resettled by the U.S. government in low-income communities that were over-policed and over-criminalized," Chan said.
Between 1977 and 1997 the criminal arrest rate for Asian American and Pacific Islander youth increased by more than 700 percent, according to the Asian Law Caucus.
Russell Jeung, chairman of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, said the fate of these refugees is a public policy concern that affects the fabric of California families and communities.
"The deportation of Southeast Asians is the top issue facing our community because it has such dire consequences," Jeung said. "We are tearing apart families at the borders. But for Asian Americans, we are tearing families apart by oceans."
A new law, Assembly Bill 2845, authored by Bonta, will make the pardon and commutation process more transparent and creates an expedited pardon system when an urgent issue, such as a deportation, is at stake. It is due to go into effect in January.