A federal court in Boston hears arguments Tuesday that will center, in part, on whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the right to deport immigrants for past crimes - despite a state pardon.
Wayzaro Walton came to the U.S. from England when she was 4 years old and lived legally in Connecticut as a permanent resident for most of her life. In her teens and 20s, she had a string of arrests for non-violent offenses including larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny.
She and her attorney have been fighting a removal order since 2012 on several fronts: by filing for a special U-VISA, submitting a motion to reopen her case, and, last year, applying to the state of Connecticut for a pardon for her crimes.
"I did the crime. But it [was] also years ago when I was much younger," Walton said by phone from an ICE detention center in Boston. "I mean anybody just doesn't get a pardon. You have to be free of crime for a period of time."
When she first got word that she'd been granted a full and unconditional pardon, Walton said she was thrilled. "I was ecstatic. I was so happy like, you know, not only for the ICE reasons, but also you know getting a better job and being able to better my family," she said.
But the paperwork for the pardon didn't come through until March, one day after she was picked up by ICE. She called it "devastating."
"Courts, including federal courts, have before considered Connecticut's pardons to be effective with respect to federal immigration purposes," said Connecticut Attorney General William Tong. "Under federal immigration law, if you receive a full, absolute and unconditional pardon from your state, you are entitled to an automatic waiver of deportation," he said.
The language of federal immigration law states that pardons must come from a governor or U.S. president. But that's not how pardons work in Connecticut. Here, the governor delegates authority to a Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Tong said it appears that ICE is exercising its discretion in not recognizing the state's pardon process.
ICE declined to comment on its policy regarding pardons, but in a statement said that Walton is "an unlawfully present citizen of the United Kingdom."
Heather Prendergast is an immigration attorney and an elected director on the Board of Governors for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She said that Connecticut is not the only state where a Board grants pardons. That's how it works in Georgia too.
"I actually reached out to some of my colleagues that practice in Georgia and they've indicated that indeed ICE does honor those pardons," she said. "The only difference that I can see as someone who is not at the agency, is that one state has policies that are arguably very favorable to ICE's position, whereas the other state does not."
That led Attorney General Tong to ask, "Why are you treating Connecticut different than places like Georgia? I hope that it's not a partisan basis, but if sure feels that way."
Wayzaro Walton said she doesn't understand ICE's decision.
"I don't see what the difference would be in this state," she said. "Like, it's America, you know? So I figured every state would follow the same process."
Tuesday's court hearing involves another petitioner from Connecticut facing deportation. He's currently being held in an ICE facility in Alabama. And he has also been granted a full, absolute and unconditional state pardon. Tong will defend Connecticut's pardon process before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston on Tuesday.