N.Y. and Arizona; Different Approaches to State-level Immigration Policy

By David North on May 26, 2010

They are both border states, both with substitute governors, but the immigration-related policies of New York State and Arizona could not be more different.

At opposite corners of the country, and with totally different political bents, Arizona is at the forefront of the movement to control illegal immigration, while New York has adopted a much less-well-publicized program to help certain criminal aliens escape deportation.

Bear in mind that New York's border with prosperous, lightly-populated Canada largely consists of water (Lakes Ontario and Erie, and the Niagara and the St. Lawrence Rivers) along with 80 miles of pastures and woodland in the state's upper right hand corner. There is some inward leakage of mostly non-Canadian illegals in the latter area. (Most illegals in the state arrived by air.)

Arizona, on the other hand, is next to poverty-stricken and over-populated Mexico, with 330 miles or so of desert border (and a few miles of the dried-up Colorado River). The cross- border illegal traffic there is said to be the busiest of any state in the nation.

Arizona's new law is so well known that no detailed description is needed here; suffice to say that it was adopted by both houses of the state legislature, tinkered with under public glare, and signed into law by its governor (who is a substitute for the elected governor, Janet Napolitano, now Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security). Gov. Jan Brewer is a Republican. For more on the Arizona law see the Center's Arizona Law Topic Page.

New York's immigration action, according to the Buffalo News, was put into play single-handedly by another substitute governor, the luckless David Paterson, the Democrat who succeeded Eliot Spitzer after Spitzer's relationship with a prostitute became known.

The New York program relates to the governor's power to pardon that is common to all states. Gov. Paterson has announced that his office will sort through and consider pardons for state-convicted criminals who: 1) are in danger of deportation, 2) whose deportation could be thwarted by a gubernatorial pardon, and 3) whose post-prison record has been clean. The population for this program is of unknown size, perhaps as many as several thousand according to news reports.

The New York governor, in discussing the new program, said "We are not happy to see productive citizens who actually initiated their own detention by trying to become citizens, which is basically what we would like them to do."

Only a fraction of those who would be considered for pardons fall into the category that the governor described; most of the potential clients of the program are simply aliens who have run afoul of various laws and who are facing deportation. Only a few of them unwittingly called attention to their criminal records by applying for naturalization.

That a governor could set the stage for preventing deportation, through a pardon, is just one of the intricacies of the interactions of state criminal and federal immigration laws.

It is noteworthy that while various members of the immigration bar have attacked the Arizona law, including suits against that governor for alleged infringements on federal sovereignty, I have seen no such action on the part of immigration lawyers vis-a-vis the governor of New York's venture into the field of immigration law.

Gov. Paterson, incidentally, is acting pretty much as any Democratic governor of New York would do. The governor was not doing it with winning an election in mind; under heavy pressure from his own party, he has decided not to seek a full term in the November election.

The New York program will cease to exist when he leaves office at the end of the year; the next governor, of course, could opt to continue it. The Arizona law, on the other hand, is a permanent part of the state code.