This Monday, Governor Paterson jumped into the national immigration debate with a move that could rescue thousands of legal immigrants from being deported.

As early as this month, the Governor will establish a panel charged with expediting pardon applications from legal residents who’ve been convicted of old or minor crimes.

Under laws enacted in the 1990s, the federal government is mandated to deport legal, noncitizen residents who’ve been convicted of any number of offenses, down to shoplifting and misdemeanor drug possession. In most cases, potential deportees have no right to present their cases to immigration judges. The only way out is to get rid of the conviction—and that requires a pardon from the governor.

“The panel will only recommend pardons for those individuals who have contributed as New Yorkers and who deserve relief from deportation or indefinite detention,” Governor Paterson said in a press release.

The New York Times reported today that, nationally, more than 97,000 noncitizens are deported each year because of criminal convictions, rather than lack of legal immigration status. Most are believed to be legal permanent residents, and about one-tenth are from New York.

“The most common cases we see are for property violations and nonviolent drug crimes,” says Alina Das, a supervising attorney at the New York University Immigration Rights Clinic. “Right now, we have a client who’s facing deportation for shoplifting and for using his cousin’s student Metro card—it’s considered ‘theft of services.’”

In a 2007 report, Human Rights Watch listed the most common non-immigration convictions that led to deportations over the previous 10 years:

1) Driving under the influence of liquor
2) Assault
3) Dangerous drugs
4) Cocaine possession
5) Cocaine sale
6) Cruelty toward wife
7) Robbery
8) Marijuana possession
9) Burglary
10) Marijuana sale
11) Traffic offenses