California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday pardoned seven former felons, including two Cambodian refugees the Trump administration wants to deport, in his first acts of clemency since the Democrat took office in January.
Newsom adopted a policy of his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, to use his state constitutional authority to issue pardons to shield immigrants targeted by federal immigration officials.
The pardons are an unmistakable rebuke to President Trump, whose fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric and demands for a giant wall along the U.S.-Mexico border have been central to the escalating political feud between Newsom and the White House.
Newsom took another shot at Trump just hours before announcing the pardons while speaking to members of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Assn., a national nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Sacramento. Newsom compared Trump to the anti-immigrant “demagogues” in San Francisco who championed the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the nation’s first immigration ban on a specific group of people.
“I’m constantly trying to understand the moment we’re living in, the xenophobia, the nativism that marks the populism of this moment,” Newsom said. “Any of us who are students of history know that it’s not without precedent. It’s not novel. It’s hardly new. It’s very familiar.”
One of the Cambodian refugees pardoned by Newsom, Hay Hov of Oakland, was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in March. He has since been released.
Hov, a naturalized citizen who arrived in the United States in 1985 as a legal refugee when he was 6, was convicted of solicitation to commit murder and participation in a criminal street gang in 2001, when he was 21, according to the Newsom administration.
The other refugee, Kang Hen of San Francisco, like Hov, fled to the Bay Area with his family to escape the Cambodian genocide in the 1980s. Hen was convicted of grand theft in 1994 when he was 18. Hen, who has a 4-year-old son and a partner with kidney and heart problems, was taken into custody by ICE in April.
Both Hov and Hen are being processed for deportation to Cambodia. The pardons do not automatically end a deportation effort but remove the underlying criminal offense that triggered the federal removal actions.
The pardons come as the federal government continues a crackdown on the Cambodian community that began in 2017 when Trump forced Cambodia to agree to take back more deportees. Many of the Cambodians facing deportation were refugees from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that killed thousands, and came to the United States legally as children. They have few memories or ties to the country. But because they committed crimes, even if convicted decades ago, they can be deported.
In the 2016 fiscal year, ICE reported removing 74 Cambodians. In 2017, 29 Cambodians were removed. In 2018, that number has jumped to 110 thus far.
ICE reported that, as of March 26, there were 1,784 non-detained Cambodians nationals in the United States with a final order of removal. Of those, 1,294 had criminal records.
All seven of the people Newsom pardoned on Monday had completed their prison sentences.
“By granting these pardons to people who are transforming their lives, the Governor is seeking to remove barriers to employment and public service, restore civic rights and responsibilities and prevent unjust collateral consequences of conviction,” the governor’s office said in a statement released Monday afternoon.
The other five people pardoned committed offenses that varied from selling or possessing drugs to forgery.
Brown granted a historic 1,332 pardons and 283 commutations during his last two terms as governor. However, the California Supreme Court rejected 10 grants of clemency issued by Brown, the first time the high court has blocked a pardon or commutation in more than 50 years.
The court did not issue an explanation for the action. Under the California Constitution, the governor cannot grant a pardon or commute a sentence of anyone convicted of two separate felonies without the approval of the state Supreme Court.
None of the people whom Newsom pardoned on Monday had multiple felonies, according to a governor’s office spokesperson.