Thousands of US familes broken apart over drugs offences so minor they don't result in prison time

A new report finds that 'disproportionally harsh laws and policies' surrounding drug offences are preventing families from living together

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The Independent US

Drugs offences that are either decades old or so minor they have incurred little to no prison time are responsible for tearing thousands of US families apart through detention and deportation, according to a report released today.

The report, from the international non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Watch, found that “disproportionally harsh laws and policies” surrounding drug offences can result in deportation for unauthorized immigrants as well as lawful and permanent US residents.

The findings, which use new data obtained from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), found that deportations after convictions for drugs possession increased dramatically between 2007 and 2012, rising by 43 per cent.

During this period, deportation after drug convictions for sales, smuggling, manufacture, or trafficking also increased by 23 per cent.

For over 34,000 of the deported non-citizens their most serious conviction was for the possession of marijuana.

The report found that many people were subject to automatic deportation, despite being convicted for low-level offences, because immigration law defined their crimes as “drug trafficking”, which is an aggravated felony under US law.

In these cases judges are prevented from looking at the circumstances of an individual’s case meaning immigrants must be deported even if they have US family ties, are undergoing rehabilitation or taking part in military service.

Grace Meng, a senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report said: “Even as many US states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offences. Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses.”

Some lawful permanent residents with convictions for simple possession are eligible to apply for a form of pardon, but as drug offences trigger mandatory detention under US law, even legal residents are forced to spend months in immigration detention fighting their cases, sometimes for convictions as minor as marijuana possession.

Decades-old offences can also result in mandatory detention and deportation and the report discovered incidents of immigration authorities arresting legal residents for old offences in early-morning raids at their homes.

Jose Francisco Gonzalez, a permanent resident in Anaheim, California, was put into deportation proceedings and held without bond in 2014 because of a 2001 arrest for having two pot plants. He was arrested despite having successfully completed a Californian diversion program that promised to erase his criminal record.

A 41-year-old graphic designer and Canadian citizen, who has chosen to call herself “Alice M,” is barred from living in the US with her fiancé, who is a US citizen, because of a single conviction in 1992 for cocaine possession she received in Canada in her last year of high school, a conviction that was pardoned in Canada.

Human Rights Watch say they want the US Congress to “undertake comprehensive reform to ensure that immigrants with criminal convictions, including drug offenses, are not subject to a “one-size-fits-all-policy.”

Meng said: “The Obama administration has explicitly recognized the many failures of the US criminal justice system, and particularly its disproportionate impact on minority and poor communities. But by designating all immigrants convicted in that system as dangerous criminals, the administration is perpetuating these failures and devastating many of the same communities.”

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