Escalating the state’s showdown with the Trump administration over illegal immigration, California Gov. Jerry Brown used a Christmas holiday tradition to grant pardons Saturday to two men who were on the verge of being deported for committing crimes while in the U.S.
Brown, pairing his state’s combative approach to federal immigration authorities with his belief in the power of redemption, characterized the pardons as acts of mercy.
The Democratic governor moved as federal officials in recent months have detained and deported immigrants with felony convictions that resulted in the loss of their legal residency status, including many with nonviolent offenses that occurred years ago.
With the pardons, the reason for applicants’ deportations may be eliminated, said attorney Kevin Lo of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, which represented some of the men in a recent class-action lawsuit.
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The pardoned immigrants will still need to ask immigration courts to reopen their cases, he said.
The detentions of felons has focused on specific ethnic groups in past months, including Cambodians and Vietnamese, according to immigration lawyers handling the cases. Cambodia has been reluctant to repatriate former felons, but acquiesced to accepting more after the State Department stopped issuing visas in September to a small group of top Cambodian officials and their families.
Two of Brown’s pardons are Northern California Cambodian men picked up in October in those immigration sweeps, Mony Neth of Modesto and Rottanak Kong of Davis.
Kong was convicted on felony joyriding in 2003 in Stanislaus County at age 25 and sentenced to a year in jail. Neth was convicted on a felony weapons charge with a gang enhancement and a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property with a value of $400 or less in 1995 in Stanislaus County.
Both men came to the United States as children after their families fled the Khmer Rouge regime, and neither has engaged in criminal activity since being released from prison.
Kong and Neth were scheduled to be deported Monday, but a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order last week in the lawsuit filed by Lo’s team, delaying their departure.
Neth, 42, was unexpectedly released from Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center on Friday, said his wife, Cat Khamvongsa, and is back home with his family – albeit with an ankle monitor.
“We gave him a big hug,” she said of herself and her 16-year-old daughter. “We’re so happy.”
In a phone interview Friday night while on his way to Costco, Neth said he was asleep Friday morning when a guard at the detention facility near Elk Grove called his name.
“I knew right then I was coming home,” Neth said. “It’s the best Christmas gift ever. ... I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”
Despite the governor’s pardon, Neth still faces legal hurdles, Lo said.
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Lo said the pardon only covers the felony charge against Neth, but federal immigration law doesn’t allow the pardon to remove a possibility of being deported on the firearms count.
But California gave Neth another gift in 2014 with Proposition 47, the voter-approved ballot initiative that allowed some felony crimes to be reclassified as misdemeanors. Early this month, a court changed Neth’s firearm count to a lesser charge under those guidelines – another step toward restoring his legal status.
Neth said he plans on becoming a U.S. citizen if he is able, and encouraged other immigrants in his situation to remain optimistic.
“When I was in (detention), I think I was taught a few lessons, that I am not alone. God is always with me,” Neth said. “I’m not pretty outspoken, sometimes can’t find the right words to say, but just have hope.”
Kong remained in custody as of Friday. His family could not immediately be reached for comment.
Brown stated in his pardon that several people wrote in support of Kong’s application, describing him as “kind” and “generous” and a role model for “those who face insurmountable challenges in their lives.”
Brown defied the White House in October by signing into law so-called “sanctuary state” legislation, placing limitations on state and local law enforcement’s ability to help federal officials enforce immigration violations.
He fortified the state budget with millions more in spending to help mount a range of immigration-related legal challenges, including cases over the ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Other cases seek to prevent construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and to stop the federal government from withholding public safety grants from localities that don’t expend public resources on immigration enforcement.
In April, the governor issued full pardons to three veterans who served in the U.S. military but were deported to Mexico after completing sentences for various crimes. The cases were part of 72 pardons and seven commutations Brown extended ahead of Easter, the majority covering old crimes dealing with drugs and other lower-level offenses.
Pardons are reserved only for those who have lived crime-free for a decade, completed their sentence and received a court-issued certificate of rehabilitation, provided they still live in California. The potential benefits include being able to own a gun or serve on juries.
On Saturday, Brown extended a total of 132 pardons and 19 commutations. Since returning to office in 2011, he has handed down a modern-era record 1,059 pardons, along with 37 commutations, far more than the 404 pardons and one commutation he made over his first two terms as governor, from 1975 to 1983.
Brown’s father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown had 467 pardons and 55 commutations, but there have been long stretches of very few. From 1991 through 2010, former Govs. Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger combined for just 15 pardons and 14 commutations.
Among those Brown pardoned ahead of this Christmas holiday was Kimberly Joyce Carter, who led life in and out of prison, prostitution and homelessness in San Bernardino, before founding the nonprofit organization Time for Change Foundation to help women break the cycle of homelessness.
Carter began repairing her life in the mid-1990s, and went on to become a “CNN Hero,” a recognition Brown cited in her written pardon.
“Homeless women and children, I call them invisible people,” Carter said when receiving the national honor two years ago. “We pretend that we don’t see them. But I see them. And I know there’s something we can do to help them.”
Brown also commuted the sentence of Candace Lee Fox, 57, of Los Angeles, to 15 years to life. Fox has served 33 years in prison for joining others in a killing and robbery when she was 24 and a single mother working as a manicurist.
Fox had reportedly received a a life sentence after she initially agreed to a plea deal from a prosecutor in open court promising possible parole after 7 1/2 years in exchange for testimony against a fellow assailant.
However at a retrial, after it was determined she would need to serve at least a decade before being eligible for parole, a jury convicted Fox of first-degree murder, and she was sentenced to life without parole.
While the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office maintains that Fox “has not paid her debt to society,” Brown noted in his commutation that a correctional officer called her a “model inmate,” and wrote, “I believe Inmate Fox has paid her debt to society and is ready for life after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.”
It is clear that Fox’s crime partners were primarily responsible for the murder, Brown wrote. “Justice is not served by continuing to deny her the opportunity she was promised decades ago – the chance to show that she is worthy of release,” he concluded.
Inmates may apply to have their sentence reduced or eliminated and must demonstrate exemplary behavior since their conviction. In August, Brown commuted the sentences of nine prisoners convicted over the past three decades primarily of murder or attempted murder.
Brown, who in 2016 spearheaded a successful ballot initiative, Proposition 57, which allows parole consideration for nonviolent felons, last month granted a full and unconditional pardon to Craig Coley.
Multiple investigations – including one requested by Brown’s office – determined that Coley was wrongfully convicted of murder after spending nearly 40 years in prison. Concluded Brown: “I grant this pardon because Mr. Coley did not commit these crimes.”
Senate Bill 54, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown and due to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, allows state authorities to refuse cooperation with some federal immigration laws. Here's how it is supposed to work. McClatchyVideo produced by Hawken Miller
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