“A Terrible Problem:” Immigration Advocates Push for Pot Reform

By Willis Jacobson
Sep 21, 2020
Handout/ Getty Images

A group of immigrants’ rights organizations is calling on U.S. government leaders to support federal marijuana legalization. Doing so, they argue, would end what they consider unjust punishments – including deportation – for immigrants busted for pot offenses and would help protect vulnerable communities.

A total of 33 organizations signed a letter, dated Sept. 16, addressed to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). The letter expresses support for the MORE Act, a marijuana legalization bill that had been scheduled for a Congressional vote this month. House Democrats announced last week that they would postpone that vote, likely until after the Nov. 3 election.

The letter outlines some of the ways legalization could protect immigrants from overly harsh penalties, including in states that have passed their own legalization or decriminalization laws. Several of the letters’ points were supported by a separate report issued Sept. 17 by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). 

That report, titled “Marijuana and Restrictions on Immigration,” concluded that the MORE Act would prohibit some of the harsher consequences related to marijuana in current immigration law.

Kathy Baker, a senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said marijuana’s present status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act has created a “terrible problem” for immigrants in the U.S. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit that works to shape immigration policy, is among the signers.

“It’s a big problem because immigration law can impose terribly severe penalties on any drug crime,” Baker said Monday. “It’s, in some ways, better to be convicted of a violent crime than a drug crime.”


Heavy Consequences

The CRS report notes four key consequences for immigrants involved in a marijuana-related activity: denial of admission into the U.S., deportation, ineligibility for certain types of immigration relief, and/or have their paths blocked to becoming a naturalized citizen.

The letter from the immigration advocates expands on those issues, and highlights ways the MORE Act – or federal declassification of marijuana, in general – could equitably solve them.

The letter notes U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) policy that effectively bars immigrants from working in state-legal cannabis markets. Under the USCIS policy, updated in 2019, those who do are considered “drug traffickers.”

Further, U.S. State Department policy began advising in June that immigrants who state a desire to work in the industry are to be excluded from entry into the U.S. on terrorism and national security grounds.

While those policies are part of recent updates, marijuana’s impact on immigration is not new.

According to statistics from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal immigration law enforcement agency, more than 34,000 people whose most serious offense was marijuana possession were deported from 2007 to 2013. In 2013 alone, according to TRAC, a nonpartisan organization that tracks federal records, simple possession of marijuana was the No. 1 drug crime for which immigrants were deported.

“Any marijuana conviction is kind of like death to an immigrant” seeking to obtain or maintain legal citizenship, Baker said.

She pointed to the case of a California grandmother who grew a small amount of cannabis plants to utilize them in a topical oil as an arthritis treatment. The medication was a family remedy, but because she concocted it prior to the 2016 passage of California’s Proposition 64, which legalized REC in the state, she was ordered deported.

The deportation was stopped only after the Immigrant Legal Resource Center took up the case, according to Baker, and was able to reverse the initial conviction after “an awful lot of legal work.”

“She was going to be deported, even though she had a green card for decades and U.S. citizenship and grandkids here,” Baker said.

‘Trap for the unwary’

In addition to a pot-related criminal conviction, an immigrant can face deportation if he is deemed to be a marijuana addict or abuser.

The same criteria can also prevent a so-called Lawful Permanent Resident from becoming a naturalized citizen. Under U.S. immigration law, to be naturalized, among other things, an applicant must establish “good moral character.” As defined by the law, “good moral character” includes not being convicted of any law of the U.S. relating to a controlled substance. The only exception to that rule is if the violation was for a single offense for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.

There are several forms of immigration relief for people who are deemed inadmissible or deportable, but even those are subject to ineligibility for people with marijuana-related convictions. Those programs include Temporary Protected Status, which is typically afforded to people whose home countries have been impacted by conflict or natural disaster, and the education-based Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). 

Baker, who helped author portions of the MORE Act that deal with immigration, noted that most of the people who turn to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center with marijuana-related issues were previously unaware of the ways that pot can affect their immigration status. Those in states that have legalized REC or MED are particularly confounded by the federal rules, she said.

“The horrible thing is state legalization is great, but in other ways it’s a trap for the unwary,” Baker said.

“They have no idea that when they come to their naturalization interview or their green card interview that they’re going to be denied and some people deported,” she said, noting that most people thought they were safe by following their state’s laws.

The letter from the advocates notes that having marijuana delisted from the CSA is of paramount importance for immigrants and their families to receive equitable justice. Considering that several marijuana legalization bills, including the MORE Act, include social justice caveats aimed at helping low-income and communities of color that were adversely affected by the War on Drugs, the letter argues that achieving equity for immigrants should also be a priority.

“It’s really splitting up a lot – tens of thousands – of families,” Baker said of the current federal pot laws. “And it’s partly because there’s such a disconnect between how people view marijuana and how the federal government is treating them.”

“Because [marijuana is] so prevalent and seems so normalized, usually [immigrants] have no idea that this could destroy their entire life,” she added. “And it does.”

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