Daniel Maher (center) works at the Berkeley Ecology Center and was pardoned last week for decades-old crimes that cost him his legal status in the U.S. Photo: Ecology Center

For years, Daniel Maher has not known if, or when, he’ll have to pack up and move to a country he hasn’t stepped foot in since he was a toddler.

But deportation to China is suddenly looking less likely for Maher, a Berkeley Ecology Center employee who served time for felony convictions and consequently lost his green card. Maher, who completed his prison sentence almost 20 years ago, was among 56 people pardoned by Governor Jerry Brown on Friday.

“I’m pretty excited. There are many opportunities that have opened up for me,” said Maher, reached by phone while on a trip with his wife and 8-year-old son Tuesday morning. “We had already planned some time out of town — now we have an even greater need to unwind and celebrate,” he said.

The pardon does not take deportation off the table, but it clears the criminal record that stripped Maher of his legal status and landed him on the government’s removal list in the first place.

Maher came to the U.S. from Macau, then a Portuguese colony and now part of China, legally, at the age of 3. In 1995, at 21, he was convicted of kidnapping, robbery and possession and use of a firearm, according to state documents. He served five years in prison and three years parole, according to the governor’s office, and had his green card taken away.

Maher was released from prison early but immediately detained once again, this time by the federal government in an immigration detention center. The U.S. intended to deport Maher, but China — a country to which he has no cultural connection — refused to accept him, so he was released.

Maher has said he committed his crimes during a tough and unrecognizable time of his life.

“I made bad choices,” he said. “I wasn’t working and had friends who were associated with gangs.” One night they asked him to help them rob some drug dealers who were operating out of a front, he said, and he “rationalized” the action at the time because they were attacking other criminals. Because the dealers were running what appeared to be a legitimate business, they were willing to call the police and say they’d been robbed, which Maher and his friends hadn’t anticipated, he said.

Asked about the kidnapping charge, Maher said those charges can be brought if someone prevents another person from leaving a site. (Kidnapping charges are not just given for abductions, but also the confinement, seizure or enticement of another person with the intent to hold or detain.) “It wasn’t like in the movies,” he said.

After serving his sentence, Maher, who is now in his forties, said he started a new life and “never looked back.”

Maher, who lives in Hayward, has since built a career and community through the Ecology Center, where he works as the recycling director. He oversees a crew of workers and runs Berkeley’s curbside recycling program. He’s also an instructor for the center’s Youth Environmental Academy for underserved youth and works with other city staff on environmental issues and advocacy.

Though years went by after his prison stint, Maher was living as an undocumented immigrant well known to the government, and he was once again detained and plucked for deportation in 2015 as part of a deal between the United States and China. Immigration agents, who had a special warrant for his arrest, “came with automatic weapons and unmarked vehicles as if I just committed a crime yesterday,” Maher said. “It was a huge waste of resources. I had just walked into their office the other day.”

.@JerryBrownGov pardoned our client Daniel Maher (@glyph2014) for Easter!

Daniel came to US at age 2 & made mistakes in his youth that landed him in prison. 20 years later, Daniel runs Berkeley recycling at @EcologyCenter & has turned his life around.
https://t.co/nlRH4lS7tT pic.twitter.com/0vDAGm3Naf— Kevin Lo (@kevinchlo) March 31, 2018

Soon after he was taken into custody, China, whose languages Maher doesn’t speak, again decided he wasn’t who they were looking for, Maher previously told KQED.

Maher credits the Asian Law Caucus, which picked up his case then and has continued advocating fiercely on his behalf, with his release. Family, friends, the Ecology Center and other advocates also went to bat for him and called the detention center incessantly.

Ironically, it was his detention that opened Maher’s eyes to the possible opportunities for relief. The Asian Law Caucus attorneys helped him pursue different avenues, including the pardon. First, they had to petition a lower court to reduce one of his felony charges to a misdemeanor. Some staff at the governor’s office knew Maher from his previous trips to Sacramento to advocate for immigrant rights and told him he should apply for a pardon.

Maher still thought it was a long shot. Out of all the pardons, “I think mine is the [case] that would have drawn the most scrutiny,” he said.

Maher’s attorney Anoop Prasad of the Asian Law Caucus and others speak at a press conference in 2015. Photo: Ecology Center
Maher’s attorney Anoop Prasad of the Asian Law Caucus and others speak at a press conference in 2015. Photo: Ecology Center

In the pardoning document, Brown noted that the Berkeley City Council recently honored Maher.

The January proclamation, by Councilwoman Lori Droste and Mayor Jesse Arreguín, called Maher “a well-respected member of the Berkeley community known for his expertise, work ethic and unrivaled kindness.” Maher has helped raise awareness of environmental issues in Berkeley and has helped the city track progress on climate goals, they wrote.

“We are beyond elated to hear about Daniel Maher’s pardon by the governor,” wrote Droste on Twitter on Saturday. “All [love] to you and your family.”

In a prepared statement, Deputy Director Deborah Beyea said the Ecology Center is also “deeply grateful” to the governor.

“With this pardon, Daniel’s future and his family’s future becomes more secure,” she wrote. “Daniel has worked with consistent dedication and devotion on behalf of our organization and community…The Ecology Center would not have achieved the success we’ve had over the past decade without him.” Even with all the support he has received, Maher said he has lived in a state of limbo, always aware that life as he knew it could end any day.

Brown’s pardon allows him to pursue stability and security in the U.S. He now has the right to apply for legal residency once again.

Maher is one of five undocumented immigrants included among Brown’s pardons, the majority of which were given for drug-related or nonviolent crimes, according to the governor’s office.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump blasted Brown’s actions on Twitter.

“Governor Jerry ‘Moonbeam’ Brown pardoned 5 criminal illegal aliens whose crimes include (1) Kidnapping and Robbery (2) Badly beating wife and threatening a crime with intent to terrorize (3) Dealing drugs. Is this really what the great people of California want? @FoxNews,” Trump wrote.


“Pardons are not granted unless they are earned,” wrote Brown’s office in a press release. “A gubernatorial pardon may be granted to individuals who have demonstrated exemplary behavior and have lived productive and law-abiding lives following their conviction.” He also commuted 14 current prisoners’ sentences.

Maher said that until now he has put many major decisions on hold, either out of necessity or a feeling of uncertainty.

He had waited to pursue a serious relationship until 2015 — and was detained shortly after. He hasn’t had his pick of careers because he didn’t want to go to school only to potentially be denied a job license.

“I could be a veterinarian or a general contractor,” he said, though he noted he’s “actually quite happy where I am.”

He is also excited to travel abroad, including to possibly visit extended family in Macau.

“I could finally make my way to different countries if I wanted to, rather than being forced to with only the clothes on my back and whatever money I had at the time,” Maher said. “It’s not the end of the road for me anymore.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...