Green Card No Shield Under Law
Ann Imse, Rocky Mountain News, May 17
The U.S. government is systematically trying to deport all legal permanent residents who’ve been convicted of a crime, officials say.
For immigrants with even minor or decades-old convictions, the policy means applying for citizenship can trigger a nightmare: arrest at the immigration office, immediate incarceration and a deportation hearing.
Immigration enforcers are now doing criminal background checks on everyone seeking a permanent residence card, a visa for a relative or any other immigration service, said Maria-Elena Garcia-Upson of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
If a relevant conviction is found, then “at the time of the interview, we will definitely pick up that person and hand them over to investigations,” she said.
Because green cards expire after 10 years, the policy should, over time, lead to the capture and deportation of nearly every legal alien with a criminal conviction.
The deportation laws cover most crimes, from murder to a $50 theft or vandalism, said Corina Almeida, chief counsel for the Denver office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Only very minor crimes, such as some harassment cases, drunken driving and the most minor assaults, are not deportable crimes, she said.
Every drug conviction is included, except for possession of 30 grams of marijuana — about a 1-ounce baggie.
The laws are not new, but they gradually have become more stringent, with appellate decisions limiting judges’ ability to make exceptions, said private immigration attorney Lance Wiessenberger.
The system “is becoming extraordinarily uncaring,” he said.
“The hallmark of American immigration is supposed to be family unity. But now, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to separate a mother from her two minor children,” the law insists upon it for a mother who’s been convicted, he said.
Legal immigrants with convictions now have a choice: Let their legal status expire or apply for renewal, risking detention and deportation.
Congress passed the strictest parts of these rules in 1996, in response to the first World Trade Center bombing and the perception that the United States was soft on immigration.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the new Department of Homeland Security took over immigration and put a greater emphasis on finding and deporting aliens with criminal records.
The number of “criminal alien” deportations of both legal and illegal visitors has increased 13 percent in the past two years, to about 6,500 a month nationally.
“We must follow the laws enacted by Congress,” Almeida said. “All we are doing is following the law.”
Neither ICE nor the immigration courts could say how many of those deported are legal residents.
Michael Boyle, an East Coast attorney who has written about this issue nationwide, says it is now common for noncitizens convicted of minor crimes to be picked up by ICE when they show up for a probation appointment.
Both legal and illegal aliens convicted of more serious crimes also are detained, which ICE officials say ensures the safety of citizens.
Fighting such criminal alien convictions is difficult, Wiessenberger said. Judges often are barred from showing mercy even for parents of minor children and those with decades of clean records.
There are exceptions, but they are complicated. For example, the parent of a seriously ill U.S. citizen child may win a reprieve from a judge, but only for certain crimes.
In many of these cases, no bail is allowed. As a result, immigrants sit in jail for months or potentially years while trying to fight their cases.
Aside from the obvious suggestion of not committing crimes, criminal defense attorney Lisa Wayne recommends legal aliens plead guilty only to crimes that are not deportable offenses.
“We try to come up with creative sentences to try to protect them,” she said.
Boyle recommends trying for diversion programs, where the judge defers a decision for a year, then drops the charge if the defendant has stayed out of trouble.
U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has denounced parts of the criminal alien law for violating “family integrity, individual liberty, fairness and due process.”
“Families are being torn apart,” Kennedy said in introducing reform legislation. “Persons who are no danger to the community have languished in INS detention. Individuals who made small mistakes and atoned for their crimes long ago are being summarily deported from the United States to countries they no longer remember.”
Kennedy joined fellow Democratic Sen. John Kerry and five other senators to sponsor changes in 2000. The bill would have restored judges’ authority to grant mercy and bail. The bill died after 9-11, though, and hasn’t been revived.
By the numbers
77,276 criminal aliens were deported last year. That number includes:
• 807 murderers
• 2,219 rapists
• 30,607 drug offenders