Op-Ed | Governor Hochul, celebrate Valentine’s Day by supporting a clear, humane clemency process

Wooden judge gavel hammer on wooden table background. Dramatic light. Copy space
Photo via Getty Images

Losing a parent is one of the hardest things in life. I lost my dad twice and I might lose him a third time. The first time, he was sent to prison upstate. The second time, many years after his release, he was arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Now, years later he is facing deportation to Haiti, a country he left over 40 years ago.

As we get ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I’m hoping Governor Hochul keeps our family whole by granting my dad a pardon for convictions resulting from quarter-century old offenses. A pardon would give my father his best opportunity to stay home with his family and community. It’s been a long journey.

Based on our experience navigating the pardon process, I believe it’s time for New York to pass the Clemency Justice Act, so people like my dad– who have spent years changing their lives– can more easily obtain pardons, and continue to contribute to our great state.

My dad, Rodrigue, has worked very hard to support our family in the years since his release from prison and to overcome the emotional scars of his early years.

He moved to the United States as a small boy and has lived in New York as a green card holder ever since. His relationship with his abusive father left him with serious trauma. He became homeless and ended up struggling with drug use.

During this terrible time, he was convicted of several crimes, which he committed to support his addiction. To be honest, I wouldn’t believe this could be true if he did not openly — and tearfully — admit it. It’s not the father I know.

I was a baby when he went to prison. Growing up, I didn’t immediately understand his absence. Instead, I remember feeling incredibly sad and lonely when other kids’ fathers would visit our class. For many years, my mom didn’t even tell me where he was. She did it to protect me, but not knowing where he was hurt too.

As I got older, she explained the situation and gave me his address. I immediately wrote him a letter and he wrote right back. Soon, my dad and I were sending each other letters all the time. He sent me drawings for my birthdays that said, “I love you.” Finally, I had a dad too, but I also felt our distance.

When he was released, I hugged him so hard and wouldn’t let go. I was afraid of losing him again. Together, we went to church and Coney Island all the time. Even though I was afraid of heights, I followed him onto every ride because I didn’t want to let him out of my sight.

It’s not easy to come home after so many years away. My dad completely changed who he was because he wanted more than anything to be with us. He embraced sobriety. When he was released he was able to find work, despite his record, and supported us.

Everything changed in 2012, when ICE took him away, after he had already been home for about six years. I was in shock and suffered a panic attack. I was numb. I cried and cried. All I wanted was to hear from my dad. He finally won his release after many long months in ICE jail. After getting the call, I rushed home and wrapped him in my arms. He was home, but we have lived with his deportation case hanging over us for over a decade.

The process of waiting for a decision on my dad’s pardon application has been hard. I’m anxious about his future. He’s getting older. Not knowing when the application will be granted is almost retraumatizing because I feel like I can lose him at any moment. Every second with my dad is precious but knowing that he is finally free of his past would give me indescribable joy. I want him to be here when I walk down the aisle and have kids. If there’s anything I knew I could do to make sure he gets a favorable decision on his pardon application, I’d do it – but right now we don’t have answers.

There is no happiness without my dad – if I don’t have him, my world is incomplete. He is my best friend and my hero. I cannot lose him to deportation.

While the details of our family’s story are unique, there are thousands of other New Yorkers and their families with the same fear that deportation will tear them apart from a loved one.

New Yorkers who petition the governor for a pardon often spend years wondering if their application has been processed or what the next steps might be. And for immigrant New Yorkers, the consequences of waiting can be even more dire – they often risk deportation and permanent separation from their loved ones.

More frequent pardon grants, and legislation like the Clemency Justice Act that makes the process clearer, will help New York families stay together.

Governor Hochul, as we celebrate a holiday devoted to love, please grant my father’s pardon request to bring us one step closer to ensuring he can stay home with those who love and depend on him.

Winny Rodriguez lives in New York City.