This Navy Veteran Was Deported Over a One-Time Marijuana Offense. After Nearly a Decade in Exile, He's Back in the U.S.

Howard Bailey spent years serving his country, supporting his family, and running two small businesses. Then he got kicked out of the country.


Howard Bailey came to the United States from Jamaica when he was 17. He served nearly four years in the Navy right out of high school, completing two tours in Operation Desert Storm and earning a National Defense Service Medal. But when it came time for Bailey—a lawful permanent resident—to apply for citizenship, his application was denied over a one-time marijuana offense.

What was already a devastating blow then turned into almost a decade in exile, with Bailey deported to a country he hadn't seen in 24 years. Last Wednesday, he finally won the fight to come home.

In 1995, shortly after returning to Virginia from his service in the Persian Gulf, he found himself in hot water. As Bailey wrote in a 2014 Politico feature, a neighbor asked if he could have some packages from New York sent to Bailey's home. Once they arrived, the man gave Bailey a drop-off address. Bailey loaded the boxes into his car, and the police stopped him during his drive. According to Bailey, "The boxes came from California, not New York, and were filled with marijuana. The cops had been tracking the packages."

Bailey said he'd never smoked marijuana and had no prior knowledge of the packages' contents. But with Virginia's strict drug laws, his lawyer suggested he take a plea deal. So he did 15 months in a state work camp and avoided going to trial. "No one—not the judge, nor the lawyer I'd hired—told me when I pleaded guilty to the drug charge that I was giving up my right to be a legal permanent resident of the United States," he wrote.

Unaware of the damage his plea had done, Bailey set to work rebuilding his life. He returned to his wife and two children. He started two small businesses. He built up wealth, bought a house, and took his family on vacations every year. When he applied to become a U.S. citizen in 2005, he disclosed the marijuana charge from one decade prior.

In 2010, Bailey's citizenship application was denied. Then his situation got worse: He woke up on June 10, 2010, to the knocks of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. "We're here to take you away," one agent said before removing him in front of his wife and children. He spent the next two years in immigration detention, then was deported to Jamaica in 2012. Bailey hadn't been to his home country since he was 17. At age 41, he had to rely on the help of distant cousins while his family struggled to stay afloat without him in the U.S.

In December 2017, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe pardoned Bailey. It took Bailey's testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and a letter from Sen. Alex Padilla (D–Calif.) to the Department of Homeland Security for his immigration proceedings to be reopened. After those efforts, Bailey received humanitarian parole and was allowed to return. He came home last week for the first time in almost a decade.

"It's a joyous feeling today. I actually woke up in Virginia," Bailey said on a call hosted by the National Immigrant Justice Center this afternoon. "I'm still coming to grips that I'm actually home after fighting for so many years."

Bailey is by no means alone in this misfortune. From 2003 to August 2018, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, over 45,000 people were deported for marijuana possession. And according to immigration lawyers and advocates, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has denied citizenship applications from immigrants who admit to using marijuana in states where it's legal. The agency requires that applicants have "good moral character." Even legally sanctioned behavior can come into conflict with such a subjective criterion.

Around 5,000 noncitizens enlist in the military every year, and an estimated 94,000 veterans do not have U.S. citizenship. Biden administration officials announced steps to support noncitizen veterans and service members in July, including allowing those who have been unjustly deported to return to the U.S. There are likely around 1,000 military deportees in 40 countries, and recourse for those wrongfully removed is difficult to come by. "Pardons by governors have paved the way for a few repatriations, though they can take years," The New York Times reports.

Though Bailey is extremely grateful for the chance to return home, his deportation left wounds that will take time to heal. On the call today, Bailey said his son is "locked up as we speak," having gotten into legal trouble over the years. "I understand," Bailey added. "He didn't have his father." As for his daughter, "there's a lot that still needs to be fixed" as well. She was young when her father was deported and didn't understand why he left.

"The fight is not over," said Bailey on today's call, surrounded by family. "I've got a lot more fighting to do."

NEXT: Chinese Regulators Tell Kids They Can't Play More Than 3 Hours of Video Games a Week

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  1. Great. More drugs users in the country.

    1. Did you bother to read the article? In particular, did you read the description of the "crime" he was alleged to have committed?

      1. Turn on sarc meter.

        1. If that was supposed to be sarcasm, you need to learn to do it better.

          1. Are you sure?

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    2. Personally, I find his defence of "I, as a native Jamaican, have never smoked pot." highly suspect.

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  2. That will teach you not to trust the government ever again.

  3. As for his daughter, "there's a lot that still needs to be fixed" as well. She was young when her father was deported and didn't understand why he left.

    I think she goes by Candi and is on center stage at 9pm on Fridays.

    1. "Candi with an 'i.' You know, like Ghandi."

  4. "marijuana possession"

    Well, it sounds like a bit more than that in this case.

    Why not just say, "get rid of the MJ laws and clear the records of those who were previously convicted under them"?

  5. "No one—not the judge, nor the lawyer I'd hired—told me when I pleaded guilty to the drug charge that I was giving up my right to be a legal permanent resident of the United States"

    I know there's been some legal debate over whether this sort of incompetence can invalidate the conviction.

    1. (assuming he's telling the truth, that is)

    2. SPOILER ALERT! Like Ehrlichman told Tricky Dick, frame prohibitionist agitprop to make antiwar youngsters and black peeps out to be Reefer Madmen and Cocaine Fiends and they can be raided, busted and de-clawed politically. That same strategy is now re-tasked for purposes of deporting anyone not likely to support the Republican National Socialist or Democratic Dixiecrat ticket.

      1. Missed you Hank! This post did not disappoint.

  6. And now he is a veteran, back in the US, and has the full support of the VA hospitals to look after him. Man that guy can't catch a break

    1. Not even. You lose your va benefits if you spend more than 60 days in jail for any reason.

      1. Wrong again!

        Alina Sapkota
        , Veteran Benefit Attorney (2008-present)
        Answered 10 months ago · Author has 520 answers and 857.5K answer views
        Before we begin, let’s clarify a few things. Serving time in jail, and serving time in prison are different things. The main difference between them is the length. Typically serving time in prison is a long-term stay. Usually serving time in jail is a short-term stay. I wouldn’t likely go to prison for intoxication citations. I wouldn’t be sent to jail for a few days for murdering someone. In most cases, you have to be convicted of a felony and incarcerated for more than 60 days in order for the VA to reduce your benefits

        1. Who the hell is that? Some random rando Internet commenter?

          Why not cite an authoritative source?

          1. “ VA can pay certain benefits to Veterans who are incarcerated in a Federal, State, or local penal institution; however, the amount depends on the type of benefit and reason for incarceration.”


          2. Collectivist Jeffy loves him some TOP MEN!

        2. "In most cases, you have to be convicted of a felony and incarcerated for more than 60 days in order for the VA to reduce your benefits"

          Almost any drug offense is a felony these days, even marijuana possession in many states

      2. No you don't. Where do you people come up with this shit?

        1. Utter ignorance?

  7. The National Defense Service Medal (NDSM) is a service award of the United States Armed Forces established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. It is awarded to every member of the US Armed Forces who has served during any one of four specified periods of armed conflict or national emergency from 1950 to the present. Combat or "in theater" service is not a requirement for the award.

  8. It seems like the plea was still the smart thing to do. The mistake was applying for citizenship.

    I struggle to believe a kid who grew up in Jamaica didn’t recognize a marijuana shipment.

    1. Once he's found guilty, he's liable to deportation at any time. A traffic stop, anything, could trigger the discovery that "omg this deportable alien is still in the country!!!"

      It would be a heck of a way to live.

      And if it's true (as he alleges) that he took a guilty plea without being told it would lead to his deportation, that's just inexcusable. What's the point of having the assistance of counsel for your defense (6th Amendment) if your lawyer doesn't assist you with that pretty major point?

      1. It's not traumatic if you don't know it's looming over you!

        I can't imagine he would have been found not guilty. But who knows?

        I also doubt he has an action against someone who didn't warn him about a hypothetical that was dependent upon the discretion of some other agency. They could technically have deported him just for being arrested if it was the "moral behavior" clause they used.

        1. As I indicated, I don't really remember what the courts have said about similar situations. I know what they *ought* to say, but I don't know if they said it.

  9. I've always been an advocate of the policy that any honorable discharge document should be considered proof of citizenship

    1. That's not a horrible idea. Maybe require a longer term of service, because we can?

    2. +1 become a citizen the old fashioned way. earn it.

    3. I’ve always been an advocate of the policy that any honorable discharge document, non-ranking or issued before Aug. 14, 2021, should be considered proof of citizenship.

      Nothing against the Veterans or the immigrants.

      1. Presonally, I'd add a caveat about combat service as well. Again, not to be a stickler but I can foresee some moral hazards around "logistics in the green zone and drone striking civilians from the Arizona desert guarantees citizenship".

  10. The wrong kind of plant leaves is--according to the same federal government that bombs and invades the rest of the world over drugaboos--a "crime of moral turpitude." With that hazy catch-all, anyone apparently not eugenically committed to the 'Murrican version of Hitler's War On Drugs can be scooped up and deported to an asset-forfeiture Hooverville wrecked by Prohibitionist minions of Uncle Sam. Immigration cranks thus stuff These States with imported religious fanatics and foaming racial collectivists.

    1. “drugaboos”

      Couldn’t even find that on urban dictionary. Well done Hank.

      OT: anyone ever added anything to urban dictionary before?

    2. Those drone strike killed kids in Afghanistan will never have to be in this situation.

  11. completing two tours in Operation Desert Storm and earning a National Defense Service Medal.

    Uhm, Desert Storm lasted barely more than a month. He didn't do 'two tours in Desert Storm'. Now, you might be saying he served during Desert Shield *and* Desert Storm.

    Desert Shield lasted year *prior* to Desert Storm - but it was basically just build up and lasted 6 months before transitioning into our invasion of Kuwait.

    His earning of the National Defense Medal just means he's served either during the first few years of the 1990's (because during this period it was issued to everyone on active duty) or later during the GWOT - in between the services temporarily stopped awarding it to everyone.

    Understand that I am not in any way saying this guy didn't serve honorably or anything - I am saying the basic research into his history in this article is less than you could get in a 5 minute Wikipedia crawl.

  12. No you don’t. Where do you people come up with this shit?
    Latest Update

    1. First time I've seen one of you bots resorting to profanity. Smells of desperation.

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  14. This is why you never plead guilty to something you didn't do.

  15. These cases are always sort of interesting to read about. Of course, some reading between the lines is called for. The story of how it was someone else's drugs is not backed up by evidence.
    I found the basic documents of the case. He was convicted of both felony possession with intent to sell and failure to appear. The sentence for the drugs was ten years, and two for the failure to appear. Suspended except for 15 months to be served at state penitentiary.
    The National Defense Service Medal is not an award, it is a participation medal. The requirement for receiving it is being in the military during the correct time period. Anyone who lists that as their prime achievement for four years during a war was likely not having a great military experience.
    It does seem like the account here lacks some details, and is written as an opinion piece.

  16. An overwhelming amount of empirical evidence has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that prohibition does more harm to drug users, the community at large, and in creating tyrannical governmental policies than the drugs themselves ever could... A conviction will ruin someone's life long after they've recovered from addiction. Furthermore, the vast majority of recreational drug users NEVER BECOME Addicts... Addiction is an aberration, not the norm, and is usually under 4%, with a problem or "criminal" addiction being less than 1% of that 4% (so only. 04%). That means that tens of millions of consenting adults are having their freedom taken away for the actions of 0.04% of drug users. Furthermore, prohibition and the illegal market it creates do the harm, not the drugs themselves. Overdoses are caused by an unregulated market where users have no idea about the quality or purity of what they're getting, a problem that would be solved with legalization. Legalization would also abolish the criminal gangs and organizations that use drugs to fund themselves... Legalization would do more to destroy the cartels than any other measure.

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