Uprooting the Drug War: Initiative Details Harms to Immigrants and Much More

    Imagine this: Two people walk down opposite sides of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Both are stopped by police and found with an identical, relatively small quantity of marijuana. One person is frustrated; they will now have to pay a civil fine, plus they lost their weed. The other person is terrified; they may now face detention and deportation to a country they can’t even remember.

    The difference? Their immigration status. The US War on Drugs—for all the pain it inflicts on US citizens—often inflicts even greater damage on the lives of immigrants to this country. Drug-law violations, as well as driving arrests on a huge scale, can be used to detain and deport both undocumented people and legal permanent residents.

    “Uprooting the Drug War” is a new online resource, released on February 16 by the Drug Policy Alliance.* In an easy-to-read, interactive format, the initiative details myriad ways in which the drug war inflicts harms above and beyond arrests and incarceration—not only in the area of immigration, but in those of education, employment, housing, child welfare and public benefits.

    “The systems on which we would normally rely to advance an alternative approach are infested with the same culture of punishment as the criminal legal system and have operated with relative impunity,” said DPA Executive Director Kassandra Frederique in a press release. 

    “Ending the drug war in all its vestiges is critical to improving the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. But, this is not DPA’s fight alone, nor even that of the broader criminal legal reform movement—it is a collective and intersectional fight that must happen in partnership with allies both within these systems and outside of them. It will take all of us, because the drug war impacts us all.”

    In the immigration strand of this multifaceted presentation, DPA explains how the drug war creates, in effect, a two-tiered system for US citizens and non-citizens: “Many drug law violations, including violations many people would consider minor, like the sale of $10 worth of drugs, subjects non-citizens (including green card holders) to mandatory immigration detention and deportation, and makes people ineligible for lawful status or asylum.”

    And these low-level drug-law violations are the primary driver behind detention and deportation of immigrants. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests more immigrants for drugs than any other cause—with over 67,000 such arrests just in 2019. Mandatory detention and deportation hearings then often follow. Drug-law violations were the most common cause for immigrants to be deported from the US in 2019.

    “My whole community is in Chicago. That’s where I belong.”

    A criminal conviction, even if it doesn’t result in prison time, can have disastrous consequences for an immigrant even years down the line. Under heavy pressure to accept a plea deal in a criminal proceeding, immigrants often may not know that this can later put their immigration status in serious danger. The fact that many states do not allow for simple expungement of a completed drug conviction—if at all—adds to this risk.

    DPA’s presentation shares the story of Miguel Perez, Jr., who was born in Mexico but moved to the US at the age of 8 as a legal permanent resident, and lived in Chicago for 30 years. After serving with US armed forces in Afghanistan, Perez suffered symptoms of PTSD and used alcohol and cocaine to cope. This resulted in him being arrested one day, charged with a felony offense and incarcerated.

    “I was supposed to leave the penitentiary September 23, 2016,” he related. “But instead, ICE was there at the door. Picked me up and then took me to a detention center.”

    Perez was deported to Tijuana in 2018, although he has since been able to return to the US. Without consistent access to his medicine in Mexico, he suffered two “major episodes” from his illness. “Yes, I committed a crime,” he said while he was there. “Yes, I pled guilty. But yes, I served my time. So I should go back home, where my father, my mother, my nieces, my son, daughter. My whole community is in Chicago. That’s where I belong.”

    The drug war creates a vicious cycle for people who immigrate. “A great irony is that the U.S.’s international drug policy and drug interdiction contributes to the violence and instability in Latin American countries that drives many people to immigrate to the U.S.,” DPA writes. US funding for other countries to fight militarized drug wars  spurs people to flee oppression, gang warfare and corruption to countries like the US and Mexico—where they are then deemed “illegal” or second-class citizens.

    DPA sets out some actions we can take to reverse these harms (even short of providing an amnesty for all 11 million undocumented immigrants). “We should eliminate or limit immigration consequences based on convictions and suspected criminal conduct, especially for drug convictions or suspected drug activity,” the presentation states.

    State and local governments could do this by completely decriminalizing drugs—removing all criminal consequences, including civil fines like those charged in New York state for marijuana possession. And passing new laws, which takes time, isn’t the only way to move forward. Prosecutors and district attorneys can commit to dropping all drug charges brought to their desk. Elected prosecutors can, of course, be held accountable by voters.

    Going further, we can prohibit local law enforcement from working with immigration authorities, and end mandatory immigrant detention. In New Jersey, for example, three counties contract with ICE to let the agency detain immigrants in their county jails. The county board has the say on whether to renew these contracts—in Hudson County, just five board members need to vote “no” to end ICE detention in their jurisdiction.

    And at the city level, councils can also take action to limit or end collaboration with ICE and immigration authorities. Washington, DC voted in October 2019 to not notify ICE about any people under local police custody—and not to give them any equipment or space in support of a search—unless ordered to by a court.

    We already have many tools to dramatically curtail the misery the US drug war inflicts on immigrants and their loved ones. It’s only a question of if we have the political will to use them.


    Screenshot from “Uprooting the Drug War” by the Drug Policy Alliance, depicting Miguel Perez, Jr.

    *DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    Update, February 16: This article has been edited to reflect that Miguel Perez, Jr. has been able to return to the US following his deportation to Mexico.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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