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On Monday, the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision that immigrants who are legally in the United States do not face automatic deportation for a minor drug offense. They still can be deported, but also can apply for cancellation of removal which would allow them to plead their case and argue that they merit staying in the United States.
This decision is an improvement over a punitive system where long-term residents of the United States have been deported for possession of small amounts of marijuana and prescription drugs. Nevertheless, the fact that Supreme Court justices have to determine that someone like Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo deserves a fair trial points to the need for a serious overhaul of the deportation regime.
Mr. Carachuri-Rosendo was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents as a legal permanent resident when he was five years old. In 2004, he was sentenced to 20 days in jail for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana. The next year, he was sentenced to ten days in jail for having a single tablet of Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, without a prescription. Because this amounts to two drug offenses, Mr. Carachuri-Rosendo was deemed an aggravated felon and faced mandatory detention and deportation. This means that he would not be allowed to argue that his crimes were fairly minor, that he has lived in the United States since he was five, that his mother, his common-law wife and four children are US citizens, and that he has few ties to Mexico. It still is not clear whether or not he will be deported, but at least now he has the chance to apply for cancellation of removal.
If Mr. Carachuri-Rosendo is granted relief from deportation, he will be allowed to remain in the United States with his family. If his request is denied, he will be one of the over 1,000 people that are deported each day. About one-third of deportees are deported for criminal offenses. Many are deported for relatively minor crimes, especially for drug violations.
According to ICE’s 2009 Immigration Enforcement Actions Report, 35.9 percent of people deported on criminal grounds in FY 2008 were deported for drug offenses. This amounts for 34,882 people deported for possession, selling, or smuggling drugs. A 2009 Human Rights Watch Report provides more detail and indicates that between 1997 and 2007, over 50,000 people were deported for simple drug or paraphernalia possession – 28,885 people were deported for the possession of cocaine, 11,063 for possession of marijuana, 6,492 for possessing amphetamines, 3,476 for possessing heroin, and 1,889 for possessing narcotic equipment.
Hopefully Mr. Carachuri-Rosendo’s case will set a precedent and families will not be torn apart because of minor drug convictions. More importantly, however, this case points to the need to overhaul current deportation policy to allow all deportees to have a fair trial.
Tanya Maria Golash-Boza is an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas. She blogs at http://stopdeportationsnow.blogspot.com