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Legislation May Lower Deportations for Noncitizen Drug Offenders

If you're facing minor drug charges in California, your outcome may be fairly predictable. The pattern typically goes something like this: get busted, plead guilty and undergo drug treatment. If successful, your charges will be dropped.

Except if you're a noncitizen. Pleading guilty to a drug charge could trigger your deportation. Even if the state wipes away your minor drug conviction, federal immigration law does not forget it. A proposed California law is seeking to change that, however, offering relief to noncitizens charged with minor drug crimes.

Major Consequences for Minor Crimes

The immigration consequences for low level drug offenses can be grave -- and to critics, disproportionate. Mandatory deportation, ineligibility to get lawful residence, and loss of asylum may all stem from drug offenses. While California has relaxed its drug laws over the years, a conviction for drug offenses may, under federal law, result in deportation.

Under the proposed legislation, put forth by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, individuals charged with low level drug crimes can opt for treatment before entering a plea. Switching the typical pattern would allow individuals who successfully complete their courses to avoid having to enter a guilty plea.

As the system is now, noncitizens are placed in the odd situation of having to avoid drug counseling so as to not risk deportation. Often, individuals charged with low level drug crimes may be unaware of the risks of accepting a plea deal. A report in The Los Angeles Times featured the story of Jesus Cordero, who moved from Mexico to California as a child. When he was arrested for possessing three pills of ecstasy, his public defender recommended taking the plea agreement. Cordero says he benefited from treatment, but his plea disrupted his green card application and almost resulted in his deportation.

Seeking to Lead to Lower Deportation, More Treatment

The legislation's supporters argue that it fixes an illogical error in the U.S. immigration system, which doles out harsh punishment for noncitizens at a time when California has been lessening such punishments. Over half a million noncitizens were deported for minor drug offenses from 1997 to 2012, acco4rding to Human Rights Watch.

Not everyone thinks the change is for the better, however. The California District Attorneys Association has been critical, noting that allowing drug treatment before entering a plea can be more labor intensive for prosecutors. If treatment fails, the prosecution must go back and put together a case, sometimes months after the original arrests were made.

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