January 2017 Monthly Mosaic: Immigration and the War on Drugs

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Simple drug use or possession, particularly of marijuana, is one of the most common reasons that people are criminalized in the United States. In some cases, individuals with drug charges are even asked to leave the United States. This is how the War on Drugs disenfranchises immigrants. Drug laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s state that possessions of drugs or drug paraphernalia are automatically “aggravated felonies,” which are deportable offenses, even for lawful permanent residents. In these cases, drug offenses are treated more harshly than assault or fraud. Like other drug sentencing laws, judges are prohibited from considering potentially mitigating factors, such as the immigrant’s personal life or the extenuating circumstances they were facing at the time, and must deliver a sentence of mandatory deportation. Unlike other drug offenders, when immigrants have finished serving the time from their drug sentences, instead of being allowed to walk free, they are transferred to immigrant detention facilities, where they are held before they are deported. Individuals who have become legal permanent residents can have their statuses revoked after drug convictions, making them ineligible to ever be allowed to legally return to the United States. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, approximately 260,000 people were deported after nonviolent drug convictions between 2007 and 2012, making up about 10 percent of the total number kicked out of the country. During this time, “deportations of people convicted of drug possession spiked 43 percent over the same period, higher than the 31 percent increase in overall deportations.”


Migration is a human right. Throughout history, immigrants have come to the U.S. seeking refuge from war, persecution, and poverty. When they come here, they suffer from the effects of marginalization and oppression that face many other poor communities of color in the U.S, including failing schools, racial profiling, and mass incarceration. In Students for Sensible Drug Policy, we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, which describes the punitive treatment of youth in schools. This culture of punishment parallels the culture of punishment that people face in the streets from law enforcement and in the criminal justice system. For young immigrants who have not yet naturalized, the school-to-prison pipeline ends in deportation and permanent separation from family members, even after they have served their sentence. In addition, many orders of deportation are based on old criminal records rather than current offenses. Numerous human rights organizations take the position that no human being can be “illegal” or outside the protection of the law. However, the United States continues to violate human rights by permitting the abuse and discrimination of human beings based on immigration status. What’s even more startling is that immigrants don’t need to be convicted of an offense to get caught up in the prison-to-deportation pipeline. The United States immigration system is considered civil law, which does not offer the due process protections that are given to individuals in the criminal justice system.
Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Searching for Sanctuary Report

Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Searching for Sanctuary Report

  Once in the system, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fails to ensure the health and safety of their detainees. A report released by the ACLU, Detention Watch Network, and National Immigrant Justice Center titled “Fatal Neglect: How ICE Ignores Deaths in Detention” documents how ICE has not only repeatedly failed to provide sufficient medical care, but has also consistently failed to force changes in facilities that could reduce future deaths. The report details eight deaths that have happened in immigration detention facilities and offers recommendations for correcting these injustices, which include meeting healthcare needs in a timely manner, providing adequate levels of emergency staff, adequately screening individuals for illnesses, and more.


In the United States, narratives about the drug problem portray drug criminals as evil people – usually people of color – who are invading America and flooding communities with drugs. What’s often left out of media reports, is the United States’ own involvement in fueling the drug problem, both domestically and internationally. Labor Secretary Robert Reich says, “If there weren’t a lot of Americans seeking marijuana and heroin and cocaine, there would not be a drug war.” America is the number one consumer of illegal drugs, and the money used to purchase illegal drugs feeds the suppliers of drugs. U.S. law enforcement officials estimate that $12 to $15 billion per year in cash flows from the United States by Mexican traffickers. In order to combat this problem, the United States and Mexico formed a partnership known as the Mérida Initiative, aka Plan Mexico, where the U.S. Congress appropriated $2.5 billion for Mexico to combat drug crime. However, this has actually increased the slaughter of innocent people. An average 11,000 to 18,000 civilian casualties occur each year due to the Mérida Initiative. The Mérida Initiative has also  fueled the corruption amongst Mexican politicians and the police. One of the most famous instances of these human rights violations is the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa. In an effort to flee the war and poverty in their country, Mexican citizens immigrate to the United States, where they are then criminalized and punished for their presence.
The Immigration Crisis: Just Another Byproduct of the Drug War, Neill Franklin

The Immigration Crisis: Just Another Byproduct of the Drug War, Neill Franklin

Internationally, activists are calling for an end to Mérida Initiative and an end to the use of violence as a means of combatting the drug problem. They will continue to raise awareness about the injustices associated with the drug war.


If the war on drugs is a war on immigrants, how will the recent marijuana legalization initiatives for adult use have an impact on these communities? The Immigrant Legal Resource Center provides a policy analysis of the impact of California’s Proposition 64, also known as the Adult use of Marijuana Act, and find that the bill would help reduce the harms of the drug war.  For starters, the decriminalization of marijuana for people aged 21 and older could help some noncitizens avoid losing their lawful status. In addition, by reducing the penalties for minor marijuana offenses for young adults between the ages of 18 to 20, the bill could also reduce the number of people being barred from key forms of immigration relief. Post-conviction, Proposition 64 could also reduce the number of people subject to deportation, and open up opportunities for citizenship for individuals with past marijuana convictions. However, it is still unwise for immigrants to consume, possess, or distribute marijuana. Jennifer Casey, an immigration attorney in Denver, says that green-card holders who travel outside the US and want to come back could be permanently banned from returning if a Customs and Border Protection officer believes that the immigrant used marijuana, even if they reside in states where marijuana is legal. No conviction is necessary. San Diego-based immigration attorney Jan Bejar adds that immigrants should also avoid working in dispensaries. Because cannabis is still illegal at a federal level, working in the industry could be considered “helping with drug trafficking.” Until marijuana legalization occurs at a federal level, immigrants will still be labeled as criminals for participating in state-level legal marijuana markets in the United States.


With the recent election of President-elect Donald Trump and his promise to deport millions of immigrants when he takes office, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center has compiled a report on how cities and counties across the United States can enact policies to protect their immigrant residents. One point that they want the public to be aware of is that cities and counties are not required to help enforce federal immigration laws – many just choose to cooperate at their own expense. One of the most important things that communities can do to stop the deportation of immigrants and separation of families is to encourage their cities and counties to cease cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In “Searching for Sanctuary,” another report issued by the Immigration Legal Resource Center, an interactive map details the degree to which 2500 counties in the country has fed the jail-to-deportation pipeline.
Local Police Assistance with Deportations

Local Police Assistance with Deportations

The positioning of local law enforcement as forces to fear damages the trust that should exist between the community and the police, whose mission is to serve and protect. Consequently, immigrants who are the victims of crime or witnesses to crime whether it’s domestic violence, assault, or robbery, will refrain from participating in the justice system. In order to protect immigrants from local law enforcement, communities are moving to declare their cities, and counties as sanctuaries for immigrants, meaning that undocumented immigrants will not be prosecuted by their cities and counties solely for living in the country illegally. Sanctuary cities prevent the allocation of municipal funds and resources to enforce federal immigration laws and forbid the police or city employees to ask about a person’s immigration status. Many students, including SSDP members at Texas A&M University, Columbia University, and Brown University, are pursuing campaigns to make their campuses sanctuary campuses. Proposed policies on these campuses include:
  • Not allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers onto campus without a warrant.
  • The refusal of campus police to enforce immigration law.
  • Not sharing student immigration status with ICE.
  • Not gathering information on immigration or citizenship status.
  • Providing tuition support, including in-state tuition rates at public universities to students with DACA status.
  • Providing distance-learning options for departed students to complete their degrees.
  • Providing confidential legal support to students with immigration law questions and issues.
Contact your region’s Outreach Coordinator if you are interested in starting up a similar campaign.


The War on Drugs is an international travesty. This new section of the Monthly Mosaic, co-sponsored with SSDP’s International Outreach Committee, will highlight some of the top drug policy reform news from around the world…

Australia: Experts Push to Legalise Ecstasy in Australia, Propose “Over the Counter” Sales “Melbourne pharmacist Joshua Donelly and leading professor David Penington are spearheading a new discussion around legalising ecstasy in Australia.”

Brazil: Brazil issues first license for sale of a cannabis-based drug. Brazilian healthcare regulator Anvisa on Monday said it had issued the country’s first license for sale of a cannabis-based drug in the country after years of legal wrangling with patients.”

Canada: Safe consumption site opens in Victoria to help combat growing overdose crisis “A safe consumption site has opened in Victoria, one day after B.C.’s chief coroner confirmed the number of fatal overdoses has risen sharply.”

China: Trump push to combat drug trade may mean starting with China, not Mexico “As the methamphetamine industry evolved over the last decade or so from small, homegrown operations in the U.S. to the super-labs run by Mexican cartels, cooks and producers of the drug have begun to rely more and more on China for their ingredients. Mexico now supplies 90 percent of the methamphetamine found in the U.S., and 80 percent of precursor chemicals used in Mexican meth come from China, according to a study by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.”

Costa Rica: Cream Cocaine Latest Innovation by Drug Traffickers In Latin America “This unusual bust is reflective of an age-old criminal dynamic: As authorities better their drug interdiction capabilities, smuggling groups search for the most cutting-edge techniques to avoid detection of their products.”

Georgia: Constitutional Court decides prison is too harsh punishment for marijuana use “Being charged with possession and consumption of marijuana will no longer land you in jail in Georgia, after the Constitutional Court on Thursday ruled it unconstitutional to use sanctions prescribed by the law for consumption, purchase, possession and cultivation of the plant for individual purposes.”

Guam: Governor introduces bill to legalise recreational cannabis “As promised and just in the second week into the new year, Governor Eddie Calvo has introduced legislation for the recreational use of marijuana.”

Ireland: When Grassroots Action Works: How Ireland Won Its Medical Cannabis Battle “Ireland has become the latest European nation to approve a bill allowing for the use of medicinal cannabis. The bill, which was passed on the 1st of December after the government said it would not oppose it, is yet to become law (its ratification will be debated in the early months of the new year), but campaigners are confident it will pass and that much-needed cannabis products will be available through the health system for those in need.”

United Nations: WHO Takes First Steps To Reclassify Medical Cannabis Under International Law “The World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recently met and initiated the first steps in a long process that could lead to the rescheduling of medical marijuana under international law, and has committed to hold a special session to discuss medical marijuana in the next eighteen months.”

Vietnam: Vietnam Protests Highlight Importance of Ending Mandatory “Rehabilitation” Recent protests and violence at mandatory “drug rehabilitation” centres in Vietnam highlight the importance of the government’s decision to transform such facilities into community-based voluntary centres.

TAKE ACTION. Do an SSDP DARE and get points on the SSDP Chapter Activity Tracker)!
  • 10 points: Share the Monthly Mosaic on Facebook or Twitter using #MonthlyMosaic.
  • 15 points: Write a paragraph in response to the Monthly Mosaic. Send to Frances for your response to be included in a blog post.
  • 15 points: Set up a conversation with your Outreach Coordinator to discuss a campaign plan for turning your campus into a sanctuary campus.



Each Monthly Mosaic is edited by Frances Fu and Kat Murti.  Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous issues have covered topics such as  domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war. The DARE committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues. If you have any questions, please contact Frances at frances@ssdp.org. We look forward to reading your submissions!