Maria Elizondo and her son Jorge sat at his dining room table on a conference call with three of the most powerful people in Minnesota.
One by one, Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea voted to pardon Elizondo, her son translating and raising a finger with each vote to show his mom. When he got to three, her eyes welled up with tears.
With that, the Minnesota Board of Pardons voted unanimously in a special meeting Monday to grant a full pardon to Elizondo for past convictions of wrongfully obtaining assistance and identity theft, the first time in more than 35 years the board has granted this level of clemency from past offenses.
The uncommon act of forgiveness could save the mother of seven and grandmother of 14 from deportation to Mexico, and was possible only after a group of law school students at the University of St. Thomas heard her story — and got to work.
"I never envisioned that this would have been possible," Elizondo told her son shortly after the vote. "To have so many opportunities to have left, and yet stay behind and face the consequences for my actions was the best thing I ever did."
The moment was also powerful for Jorge, the eldest of her seven children, who was one of the primary providers for his family before his enlistment in the Army National Guard and deployment to Afghanistan in 2006.
After he left, Elizondo applied for food stamps and cash assistance from Norman County. That didn't cover their food and housing costs, so she also took a job at a turkey farm in Ada, Minn., under the pseudonym Natalia Rubio, using false identifying documents and someone else's Social Security number on her employment records.
"As a mom, and even myself now as a parent, I recognize that she did what she had to do, not to be malicious, but when you have a family there are things you have to do to overcome challenges," said Jorge. "Sometimes those things aren't necessarily things that we would otherwise engage in if the circumstances were different."
In 2012, Maria Elizondo was convicted of wrongfully obtaining assistance and identity theft and required to serve 10 years probation and pay fines and $24,758 in restitution to the state. She paid back $9,750 but after a cancer diagnosis and other health issues, her payments dropped off about four years ago.
Her probation for both convictions is set to expire next year, but in her application for a pardon, Elizondo's attorney, Nico Ratkowski with the firm Contreras & Metelska, said she could not wait that long.
The convictions started deportation proceedings and have prevented her from being eligible for Parole in Place, a program allowing certain family members of U.S. military personnel to apply for a green card without having to leave the country.
Elizondo's case first went before the Minnesota Board of Pardons in December. Even then, the three-member board was inclined to grant her pardon, but Gildea said she couldn't vote yes until Elizondo paid back the remaining money. Several students from the University of St. Thomas Law School were watching the hearing for a class on federal pardons and commutations.
"The only thing in the way between her and her pardon, which would prevent her from potentially being deported, was this money paid to the state," said Andrea Meitler, a second year law student. "It was ultimately a crime for being poor. We felt it was very unjust."
Meitler and another student, Zachary Port, decided to put together a GoFundMe page to try to raise the rest of Elizondo's restitution. In less than 24 hours, they raised $15,215, more than enough to cover the remaining fines.
"We had it set up so we could share it in social media posts," Port said. "In the age of social media it spread pretty quickly, and by the next day it was paid. We had to quickly figure out how to shut it off, people were giving so much."
The Minnesota Board of Pardons, which typically meets twice a year, decided to hold a special hearing on Monday to reconsider Elizondo's request after her restitution was paid. In granting her request, Walz noted it's the first time since 1984 that anyone has received a full pardon, which releases someone from a conviction while they're still serving a sentence or on probation.
Back then, Gov. Rudy Perpich and the other board members granted a full pardon to someone for second-degree forgery.
"This touched many people out there," Walz said at the meeting, nodding to the students for their work before casting his own yes vote. "Miss Elizondo, your pardon has been granted."
Quietly, through the phone line, she responded: "Gracias."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042