In 1992, Carlos Guillen was arrested in Houston, Texas for possession of drugs with intent to distribute after the police found a significant quantity of cocaine in his home. His brother later admitted that the drugs were his and that he'd stashed them in the house without Mr. Guillen's knowledge. Fearing a protracted court battle, aware that the law was not in his favor, and assured by his attorney that he would get a two-year sentence at most, Mr. Guillen pled guilty. Despite his steady work history, his lack of prior involvement with drugs, and his reputation as a devoted family man, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
It is stories like Mr. Guillen’s that have led to bipartisan calls for reforms to harsh sentencing laws. In the name of the “War on Drugs,” these laws have led over the past three decades to disproportionately severe punishment, including federal mandatory minimum sentences, for hundreds of thousands of people. Most recently, the Obama administration announced it would grant clemency to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving excessively long federal prison sentences.
But the reforms currently under discussion would do nothing to help the hundreds of thousands of people who have been convicted of the very same nonviolent drug offenses and punished, on top of long sentences, with permanent exile from their families and from the country they consider home.
Carlos Guillen’s story, for example, did not end in federal prison. After serving seven years, he was deported to Ecuador and barred permanently as a “drug trafficker” from returning to the U.S., where he had lived as a lawful permanent resident for more than 20 years with a U.S. citizen wife and three U.S. citizen children. For his daughter Diana, nine years old when her father was sent to prison, seeing her father behind bars had been devastating, but the deportation was even harder. “I always had hope...that he would be home one day, for my graduation or my wedding or for the birth of his first grandson,” she told me. “So when we found out he was being deported, it was like someone sucking all the hope out of your heart.”
The immigration consequences of drug offenses do not fall only on people with convictions for felony drug trafficking. Even misdemeanor controlled-substance offenses can lead to deportation for non-citizens, including those who are in the U.S. legally. In fact, simple possession of marijuana, something now legal in the states of Colorado and Washington, was the fourth most common conviction among those deported in 2013. In total, over 375,000 deportations since 2003 have involved people whose most serious conviction was for a drug offense.
Even immigrants who receive no sentence, or relatively short criminal sentences, for minor drug offenses can end up spending months or even years behind bars, since a non-citizen with a conviction for a controlled substance offense is subject to mandatory immigration detention.
The consequences for undocumented immigrants of even a minor drug conviction are lifelong. Most can never gain legal status. One attorney told me how her client, who has been in the U.S. for over 20 years and is married to a U.S. citizen with three U.S. citizen children, cannot gain permanent resident status through his wife because of a 1996 conviction for possession of marijuana. Had he been convicted of fraud or assault, he could be eligible for a “waiver” or pardon if he could show that his US citizen or permanent resident parent, spouse, or child would suffer “extreme hardship” without him. But immigrants with drug convictions—with the sole exception of a single conviction for possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana—are ineligible for this waiver, no matter what the impact on their families.
Mr. Guillen’s and his family’s suffering continues to this day. Mr. Guillen, almost 70 and in bad health, tried in desperation to enter the U.S. illegally this past winter. When he was caught and put into immigration jail, his family appealed to the Obama administration to exercise prosecutorial discretion – effectively to forgive his 20-year-old conviction and recognize that his right to family unity outweighed the U.S. government’s interest in keeping him out of the U.S. But the same administration that now laudably seeks to exercise clemency to remedy the injustices suffered by so many under the U.S. “War on Drugs” ignored the request, and deported Mr. Guillen back to Ecuador, more broken than ever.
If President Obama is serious about reforming drug laws to remedy injustice, restore communities and address the skyrocketing financial costs of drug-related incarceration, his administration should stop pushing to meet quotas for deporting “criminal aliens.” He should ensure that enforcement policies are designed to recognize that even those with criminal convictions may be suffering disproportionately if they are banished from the U.S. And his administration should pressure Congress to reform draconian provisions put into effect by several pieces of legislation – from the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996 – that mandate detention and deportation and deny immigrants with convictions an opportunity to argue for a second chance. True drug reform must include immigration reform as well.
Meng is a U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch. She is currently investigating and writing a report on the impact of the War on Drugs on the U.S. immigration system. Follow her on Twitter @grace_meng.