At a hearing conducted last week by the City Council's Immigration Committee, city officials and residents spoke with restrained optimism regarding Gov. Paterson’s recently created immigrant pardon panel.

The panel – designed to review the pardon requests of ex-convicts facing the threat of deportation – held its first meeting on Monday, May 24th, according to Paterson’s Director of Communications, Morgan Hook. A pardon from the panel – the first of its kind in the country – would prevent an ex-convict's deportation by wiping his criminal record clean.

Mark Maynard, a Guyanese immigrant who testified at the City Council's hearing, said he is worthy of such a pardon. Maynard testified that he emigrated to the United States at the age of nine, was convicted of armed robbery in 2000, and is now facing the threat of deportation. Maynard served six years in prison and said he is now a fully rehabilitated man with a solid job and a severely diabetic mother to support. He also has no friends or relatives in Guyana, a place which, according to Maynard, would leave him in "certain destitution."

"All I am and know is of the United States of America," Maynard said. "I know no one and have no one in my place of birth. It would be a shame to let all of my hard work in becoming a rehabilitated and changed man go to waste."

Michelle Fei, co-director of the Immigrant Defense Project testified that many immigrants threatened with deportation would face destitution in their home countries. "[Deportees] are forced to return to countries where they often don’t know the language, have no family ties, cannot find a job, and fear for their lives," Fei testified. "Meanwhile, their loved ones are often stripped of breadwinners and support systems here in the United States."

Immigration Attorney William A. Streppone echoed Fei’s assessment in an interview with City Limits, adding that Paterson’s pardon board would also make sense on an economic level.

"Anything that helps keep families to stay together is beneficial, because when families lose a breadwinner that ultimately comes down on the taxpayer. Especially if we are only talking about relatively minor crimes or minor crimes committed many years ago," Streppone said.

Bob Dane, the press secretary of the Federation for American Immigration Reform disagreed, citing his group’s estimate that illegal immigrants in the state of New York are costing taxpayers $8.4 billion annually. Not only should Paterson disband his panel, Dane said, the governor should focus on helping the federal government deport New York's illegal immigrants.

Immigrants convicted of breaking drug laws are not eligible for a pardon from Paterson's panel, according to Ward Oliver of the Immigration Law unit of the Legal-Aid Society. But the panel has the potential to prevent many deportations based on criminal records that may be minor or nonviolent, according to the testimony of Cecilia Safont, a volunteer for the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights (who had her testimony read in the hearing by Linda Moftah, also from the coalition).

In a May 3 press release, Paterson stressed that the panel would "only recommend pardons for those individuals who have contributed as New Yorkers and who deserve relief from deportation or indefinite detention." But at this point, the requirements for obtaining a pardon from the panel still aren't clear. Nor is it clear how many pardons the panel expects to issue.

Fei testified that Paterson is moving New York in the right direction, but she lamented the lack of information about the specific steps that must be taken to apply for a pardon. "Governor Paterson has issued some guidelines, but it seems like there’s still a lot of information that’s lacking and I think we need a lot more," she testified.

The panel members are Chairman Mark Bonacquist, who serves as the assistant deputy secretary of the state's Office of Public Safety; Das Velez, who serves as senior advisor to the Office of the Governor; Caroline J. Downey, who serves as the general counsel of New York State Division of Human Rights; Linda Glassman, who serves as a deputy commissioner of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance; and Steven Philbrick, who serves as associate counsel to the Division of Parole.

The panel continues to establish its methods and procedures just after a June 14 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stopped immigration officials from automatically deporting legal residents convicted of multiple minor drug offenses. The ruling allows immigration judges to use more of their own discretion to punish those convicted.