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When it comes to fishing out drug offenders, the US government casts a wide net. When offenders are immigrants, there is often little or no distinction made between big fish and little fish.

In a report from Human Rights Watch released this week, the group calls on the US to treat immigrant drug offenders more equitably by giving greater consideration to the circumstances surrounding individual cases.

In an all-too-common case, Marsha Austin, who legally emigrated from Jamaica to New York City in 1985, is facing deportation for a drug offense committed 20 years ago, in 1995, when the crack cocaine epidemic was still raging unabated in many urban areas. Her crime was attempting to purchase $5 worth of crack from an undercover police officer in what she calls her “drug-infested” neighborhood in the Bronx.

marsha austin familyMarsha Austin with her family.

Ms. Austin’s current troubles with officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement stem from a 2010 probation violation for drinking alcohol. After serving 90 days for the violation, she was locked up for another two and a half years while officials attempted to deport her for her 1995 crack conviction. She was released in 2013 but continues live under threat of being taken from her family in the US and sent back to Jamaica.

Marsha Austin is caught up in a system that fails to see her as an individual. She is a 67-year-old great grandmother and wife. Her deportation for a petty drug crime would uproot her from the country where she has lived for the last 30 years and where she has made a life and raised a family.

In A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses, Grace Meng, senior US researcher for Human Rights Watch, documents the history of deportation of immigrants for drug offenses. The report follows the evolution of drug laws that pertain to immigrants, showing how legislation originally meant to counteract drug trafficking syndicates were adjusted over time to the point they can now be used to deport immigrants convicted of mere possession violations.

Meng explains,

“Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses.”

The report shows disparity between the way natural-born citizens and immigrants are treated following a drug conviction. According to Meng:

“Even as many US states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses.”

Meng closes her report with a number of recommendations to prevent the unjust deportation of immigrants for minor drug offenses. Among these are the elimination of a deportation option for immigrants convicted of drug possession for personal use; the inadmissibility of prior convictions that have been expunged or pardoned; and the right to a hearing with an immigration judge who can take into consideration mitigating factors such as the consequences of deportation for family members and the offender’s attempts at rehabilitation.

If the government were to take to heart even half of Meng’s advice, cases like Marsha Austin’s would be few and far between.

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