How Obama's War on Drugs Destroys Legal Immigrant Families

When it comes to legal immigrants and drug policy, you are guilty until proven innocent.


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You came to this country legally, as a young woman. You've spent three decades working, paying taxes, raising children. But a minor scrape with the law from 20 years ago has put you on the fast track to deportation. You will be arrested at your home and placed in detention, where you are presumed guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. If you cannot afford a lawyer, none will be provided to you. 

This is what Melida Castro, a native of Guatemala and a permanent resident of the United States, learned the hard way when immigration authorities knocked on the door of her New Jersey home with a warrant for her arrest.

They were took her into custody on suspicion of drug trafficking. The diminuitive mother of three did not look the part of a drug kingpin. But one fateful night two decades ago, Melida was pulled over while driving with two friends who, unbeknownst to her, were in possession of a small amount of cocaine. Though they took responibility for their drugs, everyone in the car was arrested. 

Because of the threat of deportation, a lawyer advised Melida to take a plea deal for simple possession, a misdemeanor. She paid a fine, perfomed some community service and the charge went away. In the 20 years since, she secured her green card, passed her citizenship test, and never had another brush with the law. 

No matter. The authorities were here to take the mother of three from her home and into one of the most draconian and inhuame pockets of the American legal system, a detention center almost two hours from her home, where she was forbidden from even touching her children during visits.

Melida recalls one experience while in detention where a guard screamed at her 12 year old daughter for attempting to give her a hug. Afterward, Melida was strip-searched, and forced to squat and cough, to prove she hadn't smuggled in outside contraband.  

How does someone with one minor blemish on their record, whose debt is supposedly paid, end up locked up with no legal recourse?

Grace Meng of Human Rights Watch, who published a report detailing dozens of cases like this, explained to Reason TV, "The Obama Administration has focused on deporting anyone with a criminal conviction. In this country, drug arrests are quite common. From 2007-2012, more than 250,000 people were deported who's most serious conviction was a drug offense. Of those people, the most common type of conduct was possession."

Meng adds, "Immigration judges have no discretion…their hands are tied" when it comes to adjuticating cases deemed "aggravated felonies." Judges must deport these people without offering them an individualized hearing where they can present evidence on their behalf. Also, court-appointed lawyers are not provided for the indigent, and these deportations are irreversible. There's no coming back. 

What can be done to alleviate the needless suffering of law abiding residents of the United States, who may or may have ever committed a crime?

While Melida was detained, her mother, suffering from the ravages of late-stage Alzheimer's disease, was left without her primary caretaker. Melida was also unable to help her pregnant daughter, Mercedez, as her due date approached.

Mercedez told Reason TV how she and her U.S.-born sisters contemplated moving to Guatamala (which she describes as a beautiful, but scary, place) to be with their mother in the event she was deported. They would ultimately be spared having to make that choice. 

After seven months in detention and after accruing extensive legal bills, a judge ruled the obvious: that Melida had never been a drug trafficker. She was free, but because of a broadly written law and its blunt enforcement, she missed the birth of her grandson and many of the last days of her mothers life. To hear her tell it, she missed a lot more than that.

"I missed my kids," Melida says. "Holding and kissing them. Making sure they walked to school the right way. Missed my plants, my music, the smell of the laundry. Things you don't think you're going to miss." 

Though she was unjustly detained for months, Melida is one of the lucky ones. Under the Obama administration's current policy, where deportations have dramatically increased, people have been deported for crimes that were pardoned, expunged, or proven to not even have been crimes. 

Meng says that there current political climate is so hostile to immigrants, even legal ones, that there is simply no appetite to reform these policies, which are being "enforced to the hilt."

"When Americans hear that immigrants are being deported for drug offenses, they imagine a foreign drug cartel leaders," Meng explains. "They don't imagine people who grew up here, who are green card holders, who have families. They may have made a mistake, but they're forced to pay the price forever." 

Though she has already passed it once, Melida is scheduled to take her citizenship test again. If all goes well, she could finally be a U.S. citizen next year. 

"I am American. This is my country," she says. "This is my house, my kids were born here. This is home for me." 

About 5.15 minutes. 

Produced by Anthony L. Fisher. Additional camera by Zach Weissmueller and Paul Detrick. 

Music: "Opening Up" by Adam Selzer

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