Imagine this: born in another country, you came to the United States with your family when you were barely a teenager. You have lived here ever since, and have been a lawful permanent resident for 30 years. You settled down and raised a family of your own. You carry your green card, proudly, in your wallet, and you have been, for the most part, a model resident. There was an incident, over fifteen years ago, a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence. Your wife says she barely remembers it, and anyway, there’s been nothing since. You work, you come home, you spend time with your spouse, children, and the granddaughter. You feel like an American; after all, you’ve lived in this country for almost 50 years. Then one night, ICE agents show up at your door. Can lawful U.S residents be targeted by ICE?
As Jose Luis Garcia, a California resident, discovered last year, the answer is yes. Although Mr. Garcia had an almost spotless record, as he discovered, it wasn’t quite spotless enough. The immigration story above is his. While a conviction for any type of domestic violence should not be minimized, by all accounts, the 2001 incident for which Mr. Garcia was convicted truly appeared to be an isolated one. It had faded so far in his memory and that of his family that he had no idea why he was taken into custody on that June night in 2018.
Mr. Garcia is not the only individual with a long-ago conviction who has been taken into custody by ICE. When people speak of “rounding up” criminals who came to the United States from another country, they are generally thinking about violent gang members or drug dealers who have committed recent, repeated, and serious crimes, and who do not contribute in any meaningful way to their community. Far less publicized are the lawful residents who may have one relatively-minor conviction deep in their past. Unfortunately, those people can also get swept up in enforcement of immigration laws.
It is true that legal immigrants to this country have never been outside the reach of a potential deportation. However, in the current administration, immigration agents have been encouraged to cast a wider net than they have in the past, pursuing green card holders who, because of a long-ago conviction, are technically deportable. In the past, they would probably have been left alone because they had, like Mr. Garcia, rehabilitated themselves, and contributed to the well-being of their family and community. Now, they may be targeted as a part of the “get tough” approach of the current administration.
Because they are lawful permanent residents, Mr. Garcia and individuals like him have their information, including current addresses, in multiple government databases. As a result, they are relatively “easy pickings” for enforcement. Ironically, their stable lifestyles and compliance with government regulations make them easier to find and target. Mr. Garcia was taken into custody during a three day enforcement operation that targeted “public safety threats” in the Los Angeles area. Of the 162 arrests made during those three days, 15 were of green card holders like Mr. Garcia.
As of January 1, 2014, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics estimated that over 13 million green card holders resided in the United States. However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not keep statistics regarding arrests of immigrants who are legally in the country.
While previous ICE enforcement efforts may have focused on immigrants who were convicted of felonies or otherwise constituted a real threat to public safety, Mr. Garcia’s case shows that that is no longer true. What should you do if you or a loved one have a criminal conviction in your past?
If you are a lawful permanent resident with even one criminal conviction and/or a probation before judgment (PBJ) in the past, you should consult with an experienced Maryland immigration attorney. No matter how minor the incident, or how long ago the conviction took place, you could still be at risk. It is natural to want to forget about a mistake you made when you were younger and continue to focus on being a productive member of the community, but you should not ignore the possibility of ICE action. Having the support of a good lawyer will help you to protect yourself and your family and avoid negative consequences of a previous conviction.
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