The Supreme Court yesterday heard a case that reflects the tragic absurdity of both the War on Drugs and the mass deportation machine that relies on it: Moones Mellouli, a math teacher and lawful permanent resident has been forever separated from his family and home in the U.S. for possessing a sock.
In Mellouli v. Holder, at issue is the government’s broad interpretation of already harsh immigration laws related to drug offenses. Mr. Mellouli was charged for possessing four pills of Adderall in his sock. He pled guilty to possessing drug paraphernalia: in his case, the sock. As Justice Roberts noted, a plea to paraphernalia often indicates that the state thinks it’s a minor offense. In fact, 19 states and federal law don’t even criminalize the paraphernalia offense at issue in Mellouli.
That hasn’t stopped the federal government from interpreting the nation’s already harsh deportation laws in a way that locks up and deports without a fair hearing thousands of noncitizens every year. In fact, this is the fourth Supreme Court case within the last decade that the Immigrant Defense Project has been involved with that challenged these aggressive federal government applications of the nation’s immigration laws to offenses related to possession of drugs for personal or social use. In all these cases, the Supreme Court, not known for its friendliness to the concerns of those accused of crimes (especially those who are not U.S. citizens), overwhelmingly rejected the government’s position.
At yesterday’s oral argument, the Justices again pushed back on the government. One line that garnered laughter was Justice Kagan’s observation:
” He was convicted of paraphernalia here because he had four pills of Adderall, which if you go to half the colleges in America, people you know, and just randomly pick somebody, there would be a decent chance– ”
Of course, the War on Drugs is not being waged on college campuses or in affluent white communities. An overwhelming amount of evidence demonstrates what impacted communities have been saying for decades: the drug war has been disproportionately waged on people of color, fueling mass incarceration and, in turn, mass deportation.
Decades of harsh drug laws that have been disproportionately enforced against people of color have been combined with an immigration detention and deportation machine. The result is that drug offenses that are no longer even illegal in many states can get a math teacher permanently separated from his family.
Despite changing views of drug use as a public health matter rather than a criminal concern and growing consensus about the failure of the War on Drugs, we have nevertheless entered into an era of mass deportation fueled in part by the drug war.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has made noncitizens with drug convictions, including longtime residents, one of its top priorities for deportation. In 2013 alone, the government deported nearly 20,000 people who had convictions for simple possession of a drug or drug paraphernalia, including over 6,600 people who were convicted of personal marijuana possession. Over the last six years, the government has deported nearly a quarter of a million people with a drug conviction.
The War on Drugs and the War on Immigrants have long been intertwined. While we have made some progress rolling back harsh sentencing for drug offenses at the state and federal level, the government’s actions in the deportation context undermine that progress. IDP will continue to fight with our allies for both sensible drug laws and immigration laws that reflect our values of creating safe and healthy communities and equal access to justice. While we work for reform, the Obama administration must do its part by reigning in the aggressive enforcement and interpretation of these laws. Until then, we’ll have to hope that the Supreme Court will again tell the government that it has gone too far.
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