How Marijuana Prohibition Affects Immigrants

Last Friday marked the 20th anniversary since The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (“IIRIRA”) was signed into law. IIRIRA established some of the harshest and most severe changes to immigration law, and was enacted during the "tough on crime" era.

Under IIRIRA immigrants face excessive punishments, including possible detention and deportation proceeding, on top of criminal punishments. This is even true for minor offenses like drug possession for personal use.

Latinos in California are twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana law violations. But in November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote on Proposition 64, which contains groundbreaking sentencing reforms that eliminate or reduce most marijuana offenses. Thousands of Californians can petition to have their sentences reduced and hundreds of thousands more may be eligible for criminal record clearing. The initiative also reduces barriers to entry to the legal market, and drives hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to low-income communities that have been most negatively impacted by the drug war.

Prop. 64 will ease the impact of harsh immigration laws by reducing the number of people subject to deportation for marijuana-related conduct and opening up opportunities for noncitizens with past marijuana convictions. It also would reduce some of the harsh impacts of the IIRIRA, by helping some noncitizens avoid losing their lawful status or being barred from future lawful status. Prop. 64 would also make it easier for immigrants to access some humanitarian programs, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Recently the Immigrant Legal Resource Center published the report, Immigration Impact: The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which analyzes the positive impacts Prop 64 would have on immigration, if passed in November.

Currently, in California a single marijuana conviction puts even a long-time legal permanent resident at risks of losing their immigration status and being deported and it prevents an undocumented person from ever being able to legalize their status.

One in every four Californians is foreign-born, making California the most immigrant-rich state in the nation. Because the majority of California’s immigrants are people of color, they are harmed by well-documented racial inequities in law enforcement, including drug law enforcement. This means that California immigrants are particularly vulnerable to IIRIA penalties, including detention by immigration authorities for months or years, the loss of “green cards“ legal permanent residency, ineligibility to apply for lawful immigration status, and deportation that causes permanent family separation.

“Howard came to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was 17 years old with green card. After high school, he enlisted in the Navy, and after he was honorably discharged he started his own small business. Howard was married to a US Citizen and has two US citizen children. In 2010, after he had applied for citizenship, he was placed in immigration detention for two years until he was deported to Jamaica at the age of 41 as a result of a guilty plea for a drug offense from almost ten years before.”

“Howard had let a friend from the Navy have a few packages shipped to his house. The packages were full of marijuana, and Howard at the Advice of his lawyer eventually pled to felony possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Since being deported, Howard has struggled to survive in Jamaica where he has no friends or family, while his family in the US also struggles to adapt to life without him.”

Under Prop. 64, Howard could have potentially reduced and expunged the marijuana offense on his record making it possible for him to stay with his family. Prop. 64 is a historical and significant opportunity to end the war on drugs and end the destruction of families.

By Eunisses Hernandez

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