Criminal Justice and Drug Reform

Bolstered by the “War on Terror” and “War on Drugs,” the U.S. deportation apparatus has exploded over the last two decades. In the past five years alone, the United States deported more than 2 million immigrants. In this ever-hardening political context for immigrant with criminal convictions, in addition to our work to end the detention and deportation dragnet, IDP aims to identify strategic initiatives for reform in the criminal legal system to collaborate with allies to minimize arrest, imprisonment, and collateral consequences for both citizens and non-citizens.

In this era of mass deportation, where immigrants with convictions have been named by DHS as one of the primary targets for deportation, IDP works to develop and expand strategies to identify possibilities to expand rights within the criminal legal system. Working in close collaboration with allies, IDP researches multiple points of interventions — including local, state, and federal policy, as well as policing practices, judicial and prosecutorial practices, state penal codes, and litigation possibilities — to maximize rights for all.

We are working on areas where immigration consequences are particularly severe (e.g., drug and sex offenses); with heavily policed constituencies (e.g., LGBTQ, domestic violence, youth, gangs); and to support active criminal justice and immigration advocacy efforts.

Drug Reform

Drug offenses have some of the most serious and unforgiving immigration consequences. To combat the rising tide of mass deportation and interrupt the drug-offense-to-deportation pipeline, IDP works to educate advocates and community members about the immigration consequences of drug offenses and to change laws to legalize or decriminalize drugs.

Deportations of immigrants with drug convictions (especially drug possession convictions) have soared in recent years. IDP is working with the Drug Policy Alliance to change transform racist and excessively punitive drug policies. IDP and our allies in the Start SMART New York coalition are fighting to make sure New York legalizes marijuana the right way, with economic and racial justice.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) will create an effective pathway to erase past marijuana convictions, while the Governor’s proposal does nothing that would erase the convictions for immigration purposes. Marijuana convictions—no matter how old or how small—can make a person ineligible for immigration status or be the basis of their deportation. By passing MRTA, New York State could ensure effective marijuana reform for immigrants.

FAQ: Why Marijuana Legalization Matters for Immigrants
Marijuana convictions can carry devastating consequences for immigrants–including deportation, detention, and the loss of eligibility for immigration status. Since 2003, the US has deported more than 45,000 people whose most serious conviction was marijuana possession. Despite this incredible harm, immigrant communities are often left out of the conversation around marijuana legalization. IDP is fighting to ensure New York:
  • Uses revenue to reinvest in communities most harmed by the war on drugs,
  • Creates or strengthens vacatur and expungement provisions that are recognized under federal immigration law, and
  • Minimizes the risk of harsh negative immigration consequences that flow from the criminal penalties for marijuana-related activity that remain after legalization
To learn more about IDP’s work fighting for marijuana legalization that includes immigrants, you can check out the following:

Ending the Police to Deportation Pipeline

The widespread criminalization of a wide range of activities through NYPD’s broken windows or quality-of-life policing practices has steadily driven up rates of arrests for violations and misdemeanors in New York City since the 1980s. Because the immigration system is extremely unforgiving, for non-citizens even a violation or misdemeanor can lead to detention and deportation.

To help defend against these consequences and protect civil and human rights against discriminatory and aggressive policing practices, IDP supports efforts to minimize the number of people entering the criminal legal system—including supporting pre-arrest drug or mental health diversion programs and providing Know-Your-Rights trainings to communities.

IDP was part of the coalition that worked on the IDNYC, a municipal identity card program for New Yorkers. IDP’s role in this coalition was to maximize protections for immigrant New Yorkers who are vulnerable to deportation in the program — including pushing for the NYPD to not arrest immigrants who have ICE administrative warrants and to maximize privacy protections for New Yorkers whose documents have been retained as part of the application for the IDNYC.

IDP has partnered with the NYU Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic to advocate against the disproportionate, unjust impact non-criminal offenses – often addressed in Summons Court – can have in barring eligible young New Yorkers from relief under the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Justice Roadmap

In 2018, Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) and allies brought together organizations engaged in criminal justice, immigration, and racial justice legislative campaigns to form the Justice Roadmap, a unique collective space in New York State. In 2019, we issued our initial Justice Roadmap—a collection of bills that address harms caused by the criminal and immigration systems, in particular on communities of color. We continue our work to develop a shared legislative platform focused on the intersection between the criminal legal system and immigrant rights, and grounded in basic human dignity, racial justice, and human rights. The Roadmap includes reforms through the full spectrum of systemic contact—from street stops and arrests, through their cascading and sometimes permanent punishments, such as parole denials and deportation. Our efforts are oriented towards long-term power-building to win the passage of transformative, decarceral legislation and further public understanding that policing and punishment regimes fly counter to public safety and community health.

Sentencing Reform

On April 1, 2019, the One Day to Protect New Yorkers Act became law in New York as part of the New York State budget, changing the maximum possible sentence for class A misdemeanors and unclassified misdemeanors from 365 days to 364 days. By passing this law, New York has taken a firm stand against the devastation caused by ICE’s cruel and inhumane detention and deportation system. Learn more about One Day to Protect New Yorkers here


In 2017 IDP’s report released with Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center released a report “The Promise of Sanctuary Cities and the Need for Criminal Justice Reforms in An Era of Mass Deportation.” The report urges city leaders who want to protect immigrants to act swiftly to end harmful criminal justice practices that criminalize poverty and send immigrants into the deportation pipeline.