Setting the Record Straight: California’s Pardons and Commutations on Illegal Aliens Won’t Protect Them from Removal



California Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent signing of pardons, commutations, and medical reprieves involving at least 10 illegal aliens facing deportation should merely be seen as a publicity stunt as it has little standing to protect deportable aliens from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removal.

In a recent interview with Forbes, the governor’s office describes pardons as an act that “remove[s]counterproductive barriers to employment and public service, restore civic rights and responsibilities and prevent unjust collateral consequences of conviction, such as deportation and permanent family separation,” while adding that “a commutation modifies a sentence, often allowing an inmate to go before the Board of Parole Hearings for a hearing at which Parole Commissioners determine whether the individual is suitable for release from prison.”

But neither a pardon nor a commutation is likely able to protect deportable aliens from removal. 

According to ICE, the agency does not “exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement – anyone in violation of immigration law, in accordance with the INA, may still be subject to arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

This means that the overall immigration history of an individual is considered when they are set for removal—and it’s not just about their criminal history. So, even though these individuals may be given relief for their crimes—which range from possession of controlled substances to murder (a mindboggling and appalling decision by the governor in itself)—ICE is within its statutory authority and ultimately determines the deportation status of an illegal alien. 

However, as the Obama administration demonstrated, this can all be meaningless if the leadership at ICE is determined not to remove aliens, especially those without serious convictions on their records. If governors and local officials make those convictions go away, then a potential Biden administration can claim discretionary authority to not act against them. The Biden administration’s promises to freeze deportations and create pathways to citizenship for illegal aliens indicate it will likely pursue initiatives that protect illegal aliens.


Nonetheless, the recent pardons and commutations from the governor still look bleak to even those on the left. In the same Forbes interview, Director Dale Gieringer of Cal NORML, a left-leaning political nonprofit in California, said he was ‘not sure whether this will spare them [from deportation], but it certainly ought to.”

It is not surprising to see Governor Newsom continue to undermine federal and immigration laws. Aside from granting a combined 145 pardons, commutations, and reprieves in less than two years, he has solidified his state as a sanctuary state by prohibiting the cooperation of local and state law enforcement with federal immigration authorities and has recently provided a $125 million public-private COVID-19 relief fund for illegal alien workers in California.

About Author

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Matthew joined FAIR in 2018 as FAIR’s communications specialist. Matthew is a primary media contact for the organization and assists with all of the organization’s communication activities. He brings previous experience in government research, writing, and communications. Before joining FAIR, Matthew worked in the Wisconsin State Senate as well as a Wisconsin political non-profit. Matthew holds a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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