Teenage kicks come back to try us

A middle-aged woman faces deportation from the US because of a mistake made in her youth.
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The Independent Culture
Deborah Aaron doesn't look like a hardened criminal. With her neatly parted hair and trusting, youthful face belying her 43 years, she fits right into Los Angeles' affluent Westside. Although born and raised in Britain, she has lived for 13 of the past 22 years in the United States, enjoying a long marriage with an American and raising three American sons close to the boardwalks and skating paths of Venice beach.

Her life, though, is under imminent threat of major disruption. Earlier this month a court ruled that she is to be deported back to Britain on the grounds that she is an "aggravated felon" and has no business being on American soil.

The problem is an indiscretion buried so far in the past that anyone less dogged then the U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service would have long since forgotten it.

Back in 1976, when Deborah Aaron was still Deborah Gabbay and a sociology student at London Polytechnic, she was unlucky enough to answer the door of her shared house when the police came calling on a drugs bust and found 54 grams of cannabis resin on the premises. The resin belonged to her boyfriend, and if she had played her cards right Deborah would probably have managed to keep her own nose clean. But she panicked and pleaded guilty to a charge of possession.

It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. After all, she was fined just pounds 10 and was given a conditional discharge. But that was before she met and married David Aaron the following year, got pregnant, and decided she wanted to follow him to his family home in California. She owned up to her conviction on her visa form and was immediately denied entry to the US. Any involvement with drugs is one of the major reasons for denying entry to foreigners, even tourists, and no mitigating circumstances can change that rule.

That was only the beginning of Aaron's troubles. After sneaking into the US. on a shopping permit from Canada, she spent five years trying to regularise her situation, without success. When she flew to England for her mother's funeral in 1993, she found herself stranded for five months, unable to rejoin her children. The U.S. authorities eventually relented, offering her a one-year renewable entry permit on humanitarian grounds, but that permit lapsed in September last year in response to tough new immigration laws passed by the Republican-dominated Congress in 1996.

The strain has cost her her marriage, much of her equanimity and a small fortune in legal fees. And now she is, once again, reaching a crisis point with no obvious solution. With time running out to circumvent the court order, Aaron has been writing an endless stream of letters to US congressmen, to British diplomats in Washington, to the Lord Chancellor and even to Tony Blair.

She considers herself a victim of human rights abuse and a vivid illustration of everything that is wrong with US immigration policy. The truth is probably a little less dramatic - she is more a victim of her own over-trusting faith in authority - but she is still phenomenally unlucky not to have been allowed to forget her youthful indiscretion. "If I had never told the US authorities about my conviction, they would never have found out about it. But it never occurred to me to lie."

Aaron has only two ways of preventing her deportation: arranging for her conviction to be quashed in Britain, or else persuading a U.S. member of congress to introduce private legislation on her behalf. The first option is complicated by the fact that she pleaded guilty back in 1976. The second option is complicated by the fact that her congressional district, once a liberal Democratic bastion, is now occupied by mainstream conservative ideologies committed to the 1996 law.

Aaron has made her fair share of mistakes, from entering the country illegally to being far too forthcoming about her past - she told the immigration service, quite unnecessarily, that she had smoked cannabis as a student. But illegal entry is not the reason for her deportation order, and excessive honesty seems a strange reason to punish a seemingly respectable person.

What Aaron really needs is a friend in a high place: Elizabeth Taylor's son Michael Wilding managed to have a similar drug conviction overlooked when his mother married Senator John Warner, and a Canadian with connections to a Florida congressman managed to get into the country recently despite a colourful career as a burglar, forger and trafficker in stolen goods.

These are, of course, time-honoured ways of getting around any bureaucracy. But Aaron does not understand why she should have to compromise the principles of her straight-arrow upbringing to get what she wants, particularly in the United States. "This country purports to be a leader in human rights," she says. "But there doesn't seem to be any justice, at least not for people like me."