The Minnesota Board of Pardons has granted its first absolute pardon in 35 years to an Ada, Minn., grandmother facing deportation to Mexico.
Unlike the more commonly granted extraordinary pardons, the absolute pardon will allow Maria Elizondo to apply for cancellation of removal and other immigration relief for which she had previously been ineligible. According to a press release from Gov. Tim Walz, Elizondo has not lived in Mexico in more than 40 years.
The Board of Pardons, which is made up of Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, was swayed in large part by the "powerful" testimony of Elizondo's oldest son, Jorge Elizondo, a corporal with the Grand Forks Police Department and a member of the National Guard who has served three tours.
“We cannot deploy this soldier while we deport his mother,” Walz said in a statement. “Today, I was honored to grant a full and absolute pardon to Ms. Elizondo.”
Jorge Elizondo did not respond to requests for an interview and attempts to reach Maria Elizondo were unsuccessful. But Andrea Meitler and Zack Port, two second-year law students who were listening in on the hearing as part of their work with the St. Thomas School of Law Federal Commutation Clinic, both recalled being moved by Jorge Elizondo's testimony.
"I think anyone listening to it would see just the amount of compassion, and empathy, and it was just a real story," Meitler said. "Her crime wasn't a malicious act, it was just one of humanity. She needed food for her family to feed her family and so I think that it was just honestly a crime for being poor."
Elizondo was convicted in 2012 for wrongfully obtaining assistance and identify fraud in 2012 after receiving more than $24,750 in food stamp assistance in 2008 and 2010 while failing to disclose her work at a turkey farm under another name.
In a summary of Elizondo's case, affidavits by her children described the sacrifices she had made to put her children first, including moving her family away from an abusive situation in Texas to Minnesota for a fresh start. Affidavits stated that she has continued to support her children emotionally ever since, including through her own recent cancer diagnosis.
The summary states that, after Jorge was deployed to Afghanistan, her financial situation became dire, and she applied for welfare to continue to feed her children and to avoid losing their home. She also obtained a Social Security number to work at the turkey farm, though she did not know it belonged to another individual at that time, according to the summary.
After pleading guilty to the charges, Elizondo served 30 days of electronic home monitoring.
Elizondo initially appeared for a clemency hearing last month, where the board agreed it would grant her the pardon when she paid her outstanding restitution to the state, a remaining sum of $15,214.
Jorge Elizondo offered to give everything he had at the hearing, but was told it would not be enough, according to a GoFundMe started by the eight students of the Commutation Clinic.
The law students started the fundraiser because they knew they wanted to help, Port said. The day after the December hearing, they started the GoFundMe to "Help Prevent Maria Elizondo's Deportation."
The students each shared the fundraiser on their social media, and soon, other social media accounts, including the NAACP, had picked up the cause. They raised the full $15,214 in less than 24 hours, and Elizondo was granted her pardon at a special meeting of the Board of Pardons on Monday, Jan. 25.
Meitler said she doesn't expect they will take on another fundraiser like that any time soon, due to the uniqueness of Elizondo's situation, but they plan to continue regular work in monitoring the clemency hearings and helping people with their clemency applications.
As future lawyers, Port said the process of helping in some way was empowering.
"You have to realize that the system makes mistakes, and the clemency process is the way by which our system is able to correct those mistakes, at least on a small level," he said. "It's a vital process, and it can be frustrating and difficult to get your petition ready and to go in front of the three most powerful people in Minnesota, but it's worth it. And there are people to help do that process."