Saturday, April 27, 2013

20 Years in the U.S. + Caught With a Gram of Marijuana = Deport?

Adrian Moncrieffe is a Jamaican national. He legally came to the United States in 1984. More than twenty years later, in 2007, he was arrested for possessing 1.3 grams of marijuana (described as the equivalent of two or three joints). He pled guilty to "possession of marijuana with intent to distribute" in the state of Georgia. As a result, the government sought to deport him.

The case is one among many crimmigration cases that, in recent years, has made its way to the United States Supreme Court. The intersection between criminal law and immigration law has always been dicey. Many of the convictions that render a person deportable are based on state law. However, immigration law is federal. Accordingly, to determine whether a drug crime renders someone deportable (or ineligible for relief from deportation), the courts often must ask whether that person would also be guilty of a particular federal drug crime.

In Moncrieffe's case, the answer to that question could determine whether or not he is deported. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court held that an immigration judge should have the discretion to not deport Moncrieffe because his crime was not necessarily severe enough to require deportation. According to the Court, his conviction could simply mean that he planned to give a joint to a friend, free of charge; he wasn't necessarily going to sell the marijuana to others. And, giving a friend a joint does not eliminate an immigration judge's authority to halt a deportation. (The more technical reasoning behind the Court's categorical analysis of the crime can be found here.)

It may seem harsh to require deportation when a person present in the United States for over two decades is caught with such a small amount of marijuana. But U.S. drug laws are very harsh for everyone, including U.S. citizens. Thus, it could be argued, there is no reason why immigrants should bear any less of the brunt of harsh U.S. drug policies.

On the other hand, it could be argued that even if a drug offense should render someone deportable, immigration judges should still have the discretion to cancel deportation if the circumstances warrant it. Another argument is that the economic resources expended to deport someone for certain minor drug charges just aren't worth it. Why not redirect the resources to those who may actually pose a national security threat? Then again, perhaps the minor drug conviction is the only way to deport someone who may pose a greater security risk (much like tax evasion charges against mobsters).

It will be interesting to see whether the immigration reform measures proposed (or soon to be proposed) by Congress will adopt the status quo or contemplate changes to crimmigration.

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