New Law Might Protect Immigrants from Being Deported for Marijuana Possession

The difference between the rhetoric surrounding America as the ‘land of the free,’ and the harsh reality, is becoming known by an increasing number of people. Ethnic minorities will point to their poor treatment as proof that the United States is not quite as welcoming as we would like.

Anti-immigrant feeling is, of course, hardly a new phenomenon in the U.S., nor is America the only nation guilty of it. In fact, a quick glance around the globe shows that nations overwhelmingly ‘welcoming’ towards immigrants are in the minority.

These days, immigrants in the United States face the wrath of citizens, not to mention the ramblings of a president who only fuels these feelings. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise to discover that immigrants are being booted out of the country for the crime of using legal marijuana.

The harsh treatment of immigrants who use weed in the U.S. goes back a long time. The Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, was a violent decade-long struggle that forced many people away from their homeland. The United States was an obvious destination. These immigrants brought their habit of smoking weed recreationally with them.

During the anti-Mexican hysteria that followed, marijuana was demonized and ultimately banned. To this day, using weed as a non-American is grounds for deportation. Senator Cory Booker wants to change all that by introducing legislation to end the practice of denying citizenship and deporting immigrants due to cannabis offenses.

What Will the Booker Bill Do?

As is the case with most 2020 Presidential candidates on the Democrat side, Booker is pro-marijuana and has been involved in several bills trying to aid the cause of legalization. He is known as one of the most consistent supporters of Mary Jane, and recently filed legislation called the Marijuana Justice Act that hopes to de-schedule weed and withhold funding from any state guilty of racially discriminatory law enforcement.

In June 2019, Booker said he would grant clemency to 17,000 people serving time for non-violent drug offenses if he became president. Around half of these individuals are in prison for cannabis-related convictions. Booker understands that the failed War on Drugs has achieved little barring the destruction of countless lives.

The new bill he has introduced is called the Remove Marijuana from Deportable Offenses Act. If this bill became law, it would ensure that the usage, possession, and distribution of weed are no longer grounds for deportation or inadmissibility under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

At the time of writing, 33 states plus D.C. allow medical marijuana at the very least, and 11 states plus D.C. now allow recreational cannabis. Despite the rise of the herb, it remains federally illegal. As a consequence, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has used minor weed and drug offenses as an excuse to kick immigrants out of the country.

Booker used strong language when discussing his bill in a press release. He said that the current Administration’s tactic of using cannabis possession as a means to deport people is “disgraceful and misguided.” Booker then said that the limited resources of the nation’s law enforcement should not be wasted on deporting individuals for doing something two of the last three presidents have admitted to doing (using marijuana).

Booker continued by saying the new legislation will get rid of an ICE weapon that has been used by the existing Administration to conduct its “hardline immigration policy.” Under the proposed bill, anyone previously denied a visa to enter the U.S. due to a marijuana offense would be allowed to reapply. It also states that any immigrant deported for a weed-related crime could be readmitted and have their visa returned.

Legal Crimes

The above is a contradiction in terms, but that’s effectively what is happening with immigrants in the United States at present. House and Senate lawmakers have sent letters to the existing Administration in the hope of eliminating the existing policy of counting cannabis as a black mark against an immigrant’s good character.

Katherine Brady is an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) and said that thousands of families had been destroyed by the deportation of a family member based on a minor marijuana infraction. Sadly, this includes families containing U.S. citizen children and spouses.

Brady continued by saying the Administration seems to be making it a priority to penalize behavior with cannabis that is legal under state law. For example, immigrants who work in the legal marijuana industry and pay their taxes are targeted and treated as drug traffickers. Even children and those who legally use weed at home are potential victims of this policy. Then, they are denied naturalization on the grounds of lacking “good moral character.”

There was at least one positive development in relation to immigration. The House of Representatives recently approved a bill to improve the likelihood of citizenship for those brought to America as kids (DREAMers). Although criminal convictions can also count against them, the legislation notes that low-level marijuana offenses, or engagement in a state-legal weed-related activity, such as working in the industry, does NOT damage their eligibility.

The Recent History of Immigrants, Marijuana & Deportation

The list of decent individuals deported or denied citizenship for either working in the marijuana industry, or legally consuming it, is long and depressing. Booker’s proposed legislation faces an uphill battle given the fact that the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, and have their man in the White House.

In May 2019, immigrants involved with legal cannabis were dealt a blow. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the state of California’s legalization of pot doesn’t protect immigrants from deportation if they were convicted of marijuana-related crimes before the new weed law was approved by voters in 2016.

This particular case involved a woman named Claudia Prado, who was in an Orange County jail after her conviction for possessing marijuana with intent to sell in 2014. Prado initially managed to get a state court to reduce the conviction from felony to misdemeanor. Next, she applied for political asylum. She argued that she should not be deported for a non-felony crime.

Alas, the appeals court ruled against her unanimously, stating that federal immigration law doesn’t recognize a state’s decision to reclassify a conviction. The court also pointed out that while the conviction was reclassified, it was done due to policy reasons. It was not overturned or expunged. It is a sad case, since Prado has been in the U.S. since 1972 and became a legal resident in 1980.

Marijuana = End of the Road

It is just one of tens of thousands of cases. A Human Rights Watch report stated that over 34,000 immigrants had been deported for marijuana possession between 2007 and 2012. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is a federal agency that is in charge of processing citizenship and visa applications. At present, it is busily rejecting anyone who has admitted to using the drug in a legal state, and those who work in the marijuana industry.

In April 2019, the USCIS issued a bulletin which outlined its stance on weed. The agency said that marijuana use would disqualify your application for citizenship regardless of its legality within a state. The USCIS has laughably determined that weed use means a person lacks ‘good moral character,’ and has followed this policy for a very long time.

The USCIS has several methods of finding out whether an applicant has used drugs. The most obvious one is to directly ask the person in the application or via an interview if they have ever used, possessed, or sold marijuana. For instance, one green-card applicant married to a U.S. citizen admitted trying weed once or twice at D.C. parties since pot became legal there. He even said he didn’t like it, but now faces deportation!

Woe betide any immigrant who decides to earn a living in the legal marijuana industry. It doesn’t matter if you are a secretary or an accountant; employment in the industry is classified as ‘trafficking in a controlled substance’ which means you can wave goodbye to the United States.

USCIS can even deny benefits to the immigrant spouses of dispensary workers because they have apparently benefited from the profits of selling illegal drugs. Tragically, a lot of people aren’t even aware that they are breaking federal law.

The ILRC advises non-citizens to be extremely careful about their association with the herb. This means never leaving the home wearing weed-related paraphernalia, and it should go without saying that possession of cannabis is a gigantic no-no. Sadly, immigrants shouldn’t even wear marijuana logos on their clothing or have anything related to the plant on their phones or social media (immigration authorities monitor your social media). This is 1984 folks (anyone for Victory Gin?).

Final Thoughts on Immigrants and Marijuana

Unfortunately, immigrants use, sell, or possess weed at their own risk; and a career in the marijuana industry must be as clandestine as possible because you’re being treated like Al Capone. If you are an immigrant in the United States, it doesn’t matter if you pay your taxes, work hard, obey the law, help old ladies across the road, donate blood, or work at a local food bank; you lack ‘good moral character’ if you get involved in weed, apparently.

It is truly pathetic that marijuana continues to be a criminal substance, and that those who use it continue to be demonized, just like those Mexican immigrants over a century ago. Cory Booker’s bill makes a hell of a lot of sense, but it won’t become law as long as the current political situation exists.