The United States Supreme Court ruled this week that the federal government went too far in seeking to deport immigrants for certain low-level drug-related offenses. Moones Mellouli, a legal permanent resident and math teacher originally from Tunisia, was deported after pleading guilty in Kansas state court to possessing drug paraphernalia — in his case a sock. The 7-2 decision in his favor, Mellouli v. Lynch, marks the fourth time in the past decade that the Court has rejected the federal government’s aggressive application of immigration laws to drug offenses.
Despite changing views of drug use as a public health matter rather than a criminal concern and growing consensus around the failure of the War on Drugs, the U.S. government has made noncitizens with drug convictions, including longtime residents, one of the top targets of its mass deportation program. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported nearly a quarter of a million people for drug offenses over the past six years, including, in 2013 alone, nearly 20,000 for simple possession and more than 6,000 for personal marijuana possession.
One immigrant who will be helped by this week’s decision is Alejandra Pablos. A 29-year-old green card holder with a degree from the University of Arizona and a job helping build homes for low-income people, she was targeted for deportation after picking up two misdemeanor convictions for possession of drug paraphernalia. Though she received no jail time — her offense isn’t even a crime under federal law, or in 19 states — the federal government locked up Pablos in immigration detention for almost two years as it sought to deport her to Mexico, a country where she has no family and hasn’t lived since she came to the US as an infant. Like many immigrants in her position, she had no opportunity to go before an immigration judge who could weigh the circumstances of her case — including her family ties, her deep roots in the United States, and the nature of her offenses — against the government’s arguments for deporting her.The whole ordeal has devastated Pablos’ family; her brother, a U.S. citizen who at the time of Pablos’ detention was serving in the U.S. Air Force in the Middle East, even declined to reenlist, because of what the U.S. government was doing to his sister didn’t reflect the values that had led him to join the military.
Experiences like Pablos’s are sadly not all that unusual. Under current laws, immigrants may be deported if convicted in criminal court of any of a wide range of offenses. Though these laws already go too far, in recent years the U.S. government has increasingly tried to push them even further, targeting immigrants on the basis of long-ago brushes with the law that often carried minor criminal consequences, and regardless of circumstances like family ties or contributions to a community.
In fact, the federal government’s deportation drive has been so aggressive that the Supreme Court has repeatedly felt it necessary to step in and set limits. In a statement that could apply to the government’s policy in general, Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority in Mellouli, stated that “the Government’s reading stretched the construction of [the law] to the breaking point…”
This week’s decision left Alejandra Pablos — and doubtless many other immigrants — relieved. “I feel like I just got my life back,” she told me after the Supreme Court decision came down on Monday. But it will impact only a fraction of those facing deportation for drug offenses. Many, including those targeted for simple drug possession offenses, will still face detention and deportation, often with no opportunity for a fair day in court where an immigration judge can weigh their case, and regardless of the heartbreaking toll on themselves and their families and communities.
It is immoral and costly to fuel a detention and deportation system lacking in even the most basic due process protections with people targeted through the discredited War on Drugs. It is time for Congress to pass sensible and humane drug reform that includes immigration reforms that prevent the government from deporting individuals for drug offenses, especially long-ago ones that the criminal justice system has judged much less harshly. Immigration judges must also be given back their ability to weigh people’s life circumstances before exiling them. Until that happens, the Obama administration should halt deportations and listen to the Supreme Court and rein in its aggressive interpretation of these harsh laws.
Wellek is co-executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project, which submitted an amicus curiae brief in the case of Mellouli v Lynch.