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Report: US drug deportations tearing families apart

Immigrants with strong ties to US are being increasingly deported for minor drug offenses, says Human Rights Watch

Deportations of immigrants over minor drug offenses are on the rise, tearing apart thousands of families, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released Tuesday.

Undocumented immigrants and lawful permanent residents alike can be deported, without a chance to defend themselves, over any drug offense except for possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to the report. For undocumented immigrants, any drug offense earns them a lifetime ban from becoming a U.S. citizen, it added.

Under these policies, deportations of non-citizens with convictions for drug possession increased by 43 percent from 2007 to 2012, HRW said. Deportations for other drug offenses, including sales or manufacturing, increased by 22 percent over the same period, the report added, with both categories amounting to over 260,000 deportations.

“Even as many U.S. states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses,” Grace Meng, senior U.S. researcher at HRW and author of the report, said in a press release Tuesday.

Increase in drug deportations, 2007-2012

Percent change between 2007 and 2012 in number of annual deportations of non-citizens with drug convictions by type of conduct.

Unlike drug laws for U.S. citizens, existing immigration policies have not seen the same types of reform, according to the report, titled “A Price Too High: U.S. Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses.”

These immigration policies “essentially mandate detention, deportation and exile each year for tens of thousands of immigrants, including lawful permanent residents, convicted of drug offenses,” the report said.

Deported residents and undocumented immigrants often have strong family and community ties to the U.S. But those factors are irrelevant and cannot be considered by immigration judges because of current federal immigration policies, the report said. Even non-citizens who fear persecution if returned to their home country become ineligible for asylum if they have a drug conviction with any element of a sale.

"The immigration system is so broken and almost arbitrary," David Angel, Santa Clara assistant district secretary, said on a conference call Tuesday, adding that such policies often have "unintended, life shattering consequences for what would otherwise be a minor offense."

President Barack Obama’s administration has deported over 2 million people since 2009. Deportations are intended to target non-citizens who posed a threat to the public, not children and families. But the immigration laws often break up those very families over minor, nonviolent offenses, HRW said.

Just days after turning 18, Abduhakim Haji-Eda, an Ethiopian immigrant was arrested for selling a small amount of cocaine at a bus stop. He was convicted of possession with intent to manufacture or deliver, and sentenced to one year in prison. After his release from prison six months later, immigration authorities arrested Eda. He was put into removal proceedings and charged with being deportable for "aggravated felony of drug trafficking," according to HRW.

Eda received a temporary stay of removal. He is now 26 years old, married to a U.S. citizen and has two U.S.-born children. Eda has never been convicted of any other offense, but because of his drug conviction, the immigration judge cannot use his discretion to consider those factors. The judge ordered Eda to be deported, HRW said.

Eda is one of over 130 individuals interviewed by HRW for its report. Most of them have similarly strong family ties to the U.S. But due to  minor drug offenses, they have been deemed deportable, the report said.

“The U.S. has fallen far behind the practice of governments around the world in terms of providing protection for family unity in deportation proceedings,” the report said.

HRW recommends that the U.S. restore immigration judges the discretion to consider cases involving drug offenses on a case-by-case basis. The judge should also be allowed to weigh factors including the seriousness of the offense, evidence of rehabilitation, family ties and the best interests of any minor children, the report said.

Furthermore, Congress should eliminate the permanent ban on entering the U.S. for any drug offense, and amend the broad definition of conviction that can even include expunged or pardoned drug offenses, HRW said.

"Unfortunately there has not been any movement on a federal level for federal reform," Angie Junck, supervising attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said during the conference call. "We're at a standstill with the federal government doing anything to fix our broken immigration laws."

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