A major United States human rights group says thousands of families in the United States have been torn apart in recent years by detention and deportation for drug offenses.
Human Rights Watch said in a report that disproportionately harsh laws and policies relating to drug offenses can lead to deportation for lawful permanent Caribbean and other residents and unauthorized immigrants alike.
The 93-page report, “A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses,” documents how the U.S. regularly places legal residents and other immigrants with strong ties to U.S. families into deportation proceedings for drug offenses.
Often, those offenses are decades old or so minor they resulted in little or no prison time, the report says.
Deportations after convictions for drug possession in particular have spiked, increasing 43 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to U.S. government data obtained by Human Rights Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Even as many U.S. states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses,” said Grace Meng, senior U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report.
“Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses,” she added.
The report is based on more than 130 interviews with affected immigrants, families, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, as well as new data obtained from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Deportations of non-citizens with drug convictions, and especially with drug possession convictions, increased significantly from 2007 to 2012, the report says.
In addition to the 43 percent increase in deportations after convictions for drug possession during that period, the report says deportations after convictions for sales, smuggling, manufacture, or trafficking increased 23 percent,
For more than 34,000 deported non-citizens, the most serious conviction was for marijuana possession, according to the report.
Human Rights Watch said it requested information on the immigration status of deported non-citizens in its Freedom of Information Act, but said ICE, in its response, claimed not to keep such records. Human Rights Watch said an appeal is pending.
It said numerous cases were reported to it, however, in which lawful permanent residents – who have a green card – were put into deportation proceedings for drug offenses.
Many of those we interviewed faced automatic deportation because immigration law defines their offenses as fitting within the aggravated felony of “drug trafficking,” Human Rights said.
It said these include several people whose convictions were for low-level offenses, such as sale of US$5 worth of crack cocaine.
In such cases, Human Rights Watch said the immigration judge is barred from considering the circumstances of the individual’s case, such as any evidence of U.S. family ties, rehabilitation, military service, and other factors, and instead must order the immigrant deported.
Some lawful permanent residents with convictions for simple possession are eligible to apply for a form of pardon, to “cancel” their removal, Human Rights Watch said.
But because drug offenses trigger mandatory detention under U.S. law, Human Rights Watch found legal residents who were forced to spend months in immigration detention fighting their cases.
“Often, their detention had devastating emotional and financial consequences for them and their families, for convictions as minor as simple possession of marijuana,” it said. “Even decades-old offenses can result in mandatory detention and deportation.”
Human Rights Watch said it received several reports of immigration authorities arresting legal residents, sometimes in early-morning raids at their homes, for old offenses.
In one case, Human Rights Watch said the legal resident was arrested 13 years later for charges that had been dismissed under a California diversion program for first-time drug offenders.
Under U.S. immigration law, expunged or pardoned drug convictions can still result in deportation, according to Human Rights Watch.
It said drug offenses also bar non-citizens from gaining lawful resident status, even if they have close family relationships with US citizens that would otherwise qualify them for green cards.
Although it is possible for a non-citizen to apply for a waiver for offenses such as assault or fraud if they can show a U.S. citizen family member would suffer extreme hardship if the non-citizen could not gain legal resident status, the only waiver possible for drug offenses is for a single conviction for possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana, Human Rights Watch said.
“The U.S. Congress should undertake comprehensive reform to ensure that immigrants with criminal convictions, including drug offenses, are not subject to a ‘one-size-fits-all-policy,’” Human Rights Watch said.
“Instead, immigration judges should be given the discretion to weigh evidence of rehabilitation, strong family ties, years of residence, and other positive factors, against the seriousness of any convictions.”
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch urged that states ensure that reforms to reduce criminal penalties for drug offenses and facilitate rehabilitation for those with drug dependency are designed to allow non-citizens to benefit as well.
In California, it pointed to two pending bills – Assembly Bills 1351 and 1352 – that would amend an existing drug diversion program to allow defendants to participate before pleading guilty, and allow people to withdraw guilty pleas if they have already successfully completed the program.
These bills, if passed, would help to ensure equal justice for non-citizens arrested for minor drug offenses, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Obama administration should also stop pursuing a deportation strategy that categorically assumes anyone with a criminal conviction represents a threat to public safety,” it urged.
Meng said the Obama administration has “explicitly recognized the many failures of the U.S. criminal justice system, and particularly its disproportionate impact on minority and poor communities.
“But by designating all immigrants convicted in that system as dangerous criminals, the administration is perpetuating these failures and devastating many of the same communities,” she said.
Human Rights Watch, for example, cited the case of Marsha Austin, a Jamaican-born grandmother and permanent resident, who resides in the Bronx, New York.
Austin is fighting deportation for a 1995 conviction for selling US$5 worth of crack cocaine, “though she is now in recovery from her dependency on drugs,” Human Rights Watch said.