WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of people are deported each year for minor drug offenses, even if they served their time long ago, because of draconian U.S. drug laws, according to a report released Tuesday by the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch's 93-page report, “A Price Too High: U.S. Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses,” details struggles of immigrants and families involved in more than 71 cases in which non-citizens had been arrested or convicted of drug offenses, and then were placed into deportation proceedings.
One such case is that of Marsha Austin, 67, a great-grandmother and lawful permanent resident from Jamaica who is facing deportation for a 1995 conviction for selling $5 worth of crack cocaine, which the report blamed on her dependence on the substance.
“I live in a drug-infested area,” Austin said about her Bronx, New York, neighborhood, in the Human Rights Watch report. She said the death of her mother following a train accident was devastating, fueling drug use and a series of criminal convictions, mostly for possession. In 1995, Austin said, an undercover cop gave her $5 and asked her to buy a small amount of crack cocaine for him. She later pleaded guilty to attempted sale of a controlled substance.
It wasn't until a 2010 arrest for drinking alcohol, a violation of her probation, that immigration authorities arrested her, beginning her 2 1/2-year stay in immigration detention at a New Jersey jail.
Austin said she has been substance-free for years and hasn't been in trouble for drugs since her 1995 conviction. But the U.S. government continues to pursue the deportation case against her.
“Ms. Austin’s case shows how harsh the consequences of minor drug convictions are for immigrant families, even decades later,” Tom Fritzsche, an attorney handling Austin’s case, told HuffPost. “DHS is still fighting tooth and nail to deport her, even though she is a 67-year-old grandmother with a U.S. citizen husband and U.S. citizen children and grandchildren, and even though she has been successfully participating in a drug rehabilitation program.”
Simple possession of cocaine or marijuana were among the most frequent charges in deportation cases against non-citizens whose drug offense was their most serious crime, according to the Human Rights Watch report. From fiscal 2007 to 2012, more than 41,000 non-citizens were deported for cocaine possession, and more than 34,000 were deported for marijuana possession.
The findings echo a 2014 report from the Transactional Records Clearinghouse Access at Syracuse University that found that marijuana possession was the fourth-most common criminal offense among deportees in fiscal 2012 and 2013. Cocaine possession was the eighth-most common drug offense during that period.
The Human Rights Watch report’s findings are based on more than 130 interviews with affected immigrants, their families, attorneys and law enforcement officials, as well as data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
President Barack Obama has sought to balance high deportation numbers under his watch with a focus on removing convicted criminals, in an attempt to shed the "deporter-in-chief" label. ICE carried out more than 315,000 deportations in fiscal 2014, about a third of them from the interior of the U.S., according to the agency. Eighty-five percent of the removals from inside the U.S. involved people convicted of a crime.
But critics of the Obama administration say that in its rush to deport criminals, ICE is targeting some immigrants whose convictions are years -- or even decades -- old.
Grace Meng, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who authored the report, said in an interview that she heard a number of stories of people with convictions up to two decades old who were picked up in ICE raids.
"What that suggests to me is that immigration authorities were going out looking for people to increase the number of people they had deported with criminal convictions," Meng said.
The report recommends that the government stop deporting individuals based solely on a conviction for simple possession of drugs, and that all cases go through a judge who considers factors such as rehabilitation and family ties. It also calls for Congress to amend immigration law to exclude deportation based on convictions if they have been vacated, pardoned or expunged. The group also recommends that Congress decriminalize the personal use and possession of drugs entirely.
"I do think the immigration laws have to be changed," Meng said. "There's no need to impose this additional consequence on people who have already been through the criminal justice system. But [there's] a bigger problem, which is that we over-arrest for drug offenses."