'Unjust interpretation' of drug trafficking law increases deportations, activists say

Report: Possession of marijuana is main cause of drug related deportations

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent walks down the aisle among shackled passengers of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter jet.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent walks down the aisle among shackled passengers of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter jet. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE - 2010)

MIAMI – The "War on Drugs" of the 1980s and 90s led to immigration regulations that are imposed on legal migrants with expunged or pardoned drug convictions, a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday said. 

The U.S. government claims that it is deporting serious criminal aliens, but what Human Rights Watch researchers claim to have found is that many of the deportees had minor drug convictions.

Rebecca Sharpless is the director of the University of Miami's immigration law clinic. She regularly helps immigrants appeal deportation orders.

"U.S. Immigration policy lags behind reforms in our criminal justice system that rollback harsh consequences for drug crimes," Sharpless said. "As the Human Rights Watch report documents, we still deport people for all manner of drug offenses, including possession."

From 2007 to 2012, deportations linked to drug possession convictions have increased about 43 percent, the report said. Researchers found that about 34,000 out of 260,000 deportees' proceedings were due to possession of marijuana.

This is because a conviction for drug possession is always a federal drug trafficking aggravated felony under immigration law. And judges are not allowed to make exceptions.

Some critics of President Barack Obama -- who is the son of a Kenyan immigrant and has admitted to having smoked marijuana -- have nicknamed him the "deporter-in-chief" for his administrations' alleged indiscriminate use of the law. 

"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," Human Rights Watch researcher Grace Meng said.

Chart: Immigration consequences of selected Florida offenses

Chart: Deportations by criminal offense 2008-2013

ICE statistics: 56 percent of removals involved individuals with criminal convictions.

 - The majority were from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Jamaica and Brazil, according to ICE.

National Association of Immigration Judges President Dana Leigh Marks said that defendants facing drug-related offenses are not eligible to be released on bond during their immigration proceedings. This has kept many in immigration detention for months, the report said.  

"The Obama administration has explicitly recognized the many failures of the U.S. criminal justice system, and particularly its disproportionate impact on minority and poor communities," Meng said. "But by designating all immigrants convicted in that system as dangerous criminals, the administration is perpetuating these failures."

Unlike many other agencies nationwide, Miami-Dade and Broward County law enforcement agencies do not detain people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement's alleged civil immigration violations.

Follow Local10.com reporter Andrea Torres @MiamiCrime