An immigrant was denied American citizenship because of her work in the cannabis industry - ForumDaily
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Immigrant denied US citizenship due to work in cannabis industry

Immigrants face a range of consequences, including denial of citizenship, lifetime bans from lawful permanent residence, and even deportation, for working in the legal cannabis industry. Federal officials consider immigrants "drug dealers" even in states where marijuana is legal, reports Politico.

Photo: IStock

When Maria Reimers was an immigrant, she tried to do everything by the rules. She entered the US legally, married an American citizen and received a green card to work. Together, she and her husband managed to open a small store in Ephrata, a town in Washington state.

But when Reimers tried to become a U.S. citizen in 2017, she was denied because she lacked “good moral character.” Federal immigration officials considered her work "drug trafficking" because the couple's Ephrata business sells federally regulated cannabis. Although legal in Washington State, their retail store jeopardized the Reimers' dreams of citizenship. She will keep her green card, but her lawyer recommended that she not visit her family in El Salvador due to the possibility that she would be detained at the border upon her return.

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“We didn't think about the consequences of intervention or how federal law would affect us,” Reimers said. — I have lived in this country for 20 years. I contribute to the development of the country, but I do not have the moral character to become a citizen? Do you think this is fair?

Unfair treatment

Immigrants across the country in states where cannabis has been legalized share Reimers' frustration. The federal government still considers cannabis illegal.

It is difficult to estimate the number of legal immigrants who may be affected by this policy. The federal government does not track employment in the cannabis industry, and the companies that do do not collect any data on how many immigrants work in the field. The number of immigrants like Reimers who may be vulnerable to immigration consequences because of their work is likely to be in the thousands.

Meanwhile, lawyers and U.S. senators in states where cannabis is legal have sought help from President Joe Biden, who has at times taken a more tolerant stance toward cannabis. In his October 2022 executive order, Biden proposed clemency for citizens convicted of simple cannabis possession at the federal level and directed agencies to reconsider the classification of cannabis. In August, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended moving it from Schedule I, a highly addictive drug with no medical benefit, to Schedule III, a category with less potential for abuse. Now the DEA must make the final decision, and no timeline has been announced for when that will happen.

But under the Biden administration, the Department of Homeland Security has not changed how immigration procedures evaluate cannabis. As a result, vulnerable workers like Reimers are unable to naturalize or obtain green cards and fear they could be deported because of their work.

Denying citizenship or legal permanent residence for legal marijuana work is “simply an interpretation of the law,” said Kathy Brady, director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a California nonprofit.

This interpretation creates stark inequalities: their bosses and American colleagues are part of a booming industry, while immigrants are labeled criminals.

“No civil or criminal penalties for “drug trafficking” apply to the executives of these cannabis corporations or even to any of their US citizen employees. The sole target of enforcement is immigrant workers,” the Immigrant Legal Resource Center wrote in an October 2022 call to action in response to Biden’s pardons.

Meanwhile, Reimers sued USCIS over the denial. She lost one appeal in 2022, and in July the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals again upheld the denial. The family filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in October. So far the court has not agreed to consider the case.

The couple argues that Reimers does not receive the same equal protection from federal enforcement of cannabis laws that citizens enjoy. But the courts say the federal government is treating the Reimers exactly as current law and policy dictates for all noncitizens.

The policy's broad impact on immigrants has drawn the attention of senior U.S. senators from Oregon and Washington, who have called on Biden to ease the policy.

“Individuals who legally use cannabis under state law or work in state-licensed cannabis businesses should not be subject to immigration penalties,” said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. “I support calls for the administration to eliminate this inequality administratively. “I will continue to push for legislation that permanently reforms our archaic federal drug policies.”

When President Biden took office, Brady thought his administration might change the rules so immigrants wouldn't face harsh penalties for government-regulated cannabis work. But so far this has not happened.

"Good moral character"

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center has for years urged DHS to exclude legalized marijuana from the definition of “drug trafficking,” which is grounds for denying both citizenship and permanent residency applications.

As a precedent for this kind of administrative change, Erin McKee, co-director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center's Immigrant Rights Project, pointed to steps DHS took in 2014 to reduce family separations. Then-Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson directed the agency to clarify the definition of “extreme hardship” to allow more undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. longer while applying for permanent residency.

On cannabis, however, DHS maintained its policy, making clear in a 2019 memo that immigrants involved in the cannabis industry cannot meet the “good moral character” standard required to obtain citizenship.

Lawmakers rejected this, writing to DHS and the Department of Justice asking them to prevent the policy from continuing. Wyden and Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Patty Murray (D-Washington) were among the signatories. Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle introduced a bill in 2021 that would have repealed the policy change, but it failed to advance beyond committee.

Meanwhile, the status quo on the cannabis issue has likely left tens of thousands of immigrants stranded in legal limbo—or, in some cases, fleeing the country.

McKee said one of her clients was permanently barred from obtaining a green card after she reported working at a pharmacy. The woman received a federal work permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by President Barack Obama in 2014. She has no criminal record and is married to a US citizen.

“This is exactly the kind of incredibly simple case where a person should have been able to easily get approved for a green card,” McKee said. “Except for the fact that she was working at a legal cannabis dispensary with a government permit to operate.”

“It affects so many people who think the same way she did, that she did everything right, by the book,” McKee said. “She had no idea that this would have such serious and devastating consequences for her.”

Immigration consequences

Several attorneys said they are simply discouraging potential clients from applying for a green card or citizenship if they have a history of cannabis. They said the 9th Circuit's decision in Reimers also serves as a warning.

Alicia Moss, the Reimers' attorney, said they face an uphill battle in the Supreme Court. To prove that Reimers suffered wrongful harm, the appeals court ruled that she would need to provide an example of how a foreign-born legal cannabis worker obtained citizenship to show why her denial should be overturned.

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Four immigration lawyers not involved in Reimers' case said they knew of no such example.

Even in some of the states that were the first to legalize cannabis, the potential impacts on immigrants are not widely known—even among state regulators.

"They could have warned us that anyone who wasn't already a citizen would have problems," Reimers said. “I think they kind of let these people down, including me.”

Some states make it easier to find such information. After Denver's mayor publicly asked the Trump administration in 2019 to provide relief to two workers who were denied citizenship like Reimers, Colorado changed its laws to require licensing authorities to warn applicants about immigration risks. He maintains a detailed web page on the federal implications of getting involved in cannabis—not only in terms of immigration, but also federal student aid and federally subsidized housing.

But in Washington State, where cannabis has long been legal, the Liquor and Cannabis Board has not posted any information on its website about the immigration implications of working with cannabis. Oregon, which legalized cannabis in 2014, doesn't either.

The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Council is warning new cannabis business owners that they may face gun ownership and banking restrictions due to a gap between state and federal laws.

Democratic Washington State Rep. Sharon Wiley, who co-chairs the House Controlled Substances and Gaming Committee, said she wants to explore how to establish requirements for all cannabis businesses to provide information to any potential employees about the consequences of immigration.

“I have spoken with my co-chair and we are both interested in raising this issue with the committee. "We put it on the table to see what would be the most practical way to protect the people living in our state," she said. “I like the idea of ​​asking vendors or people who have plants and retail stores to make sure that the people they employ know that there is a risk.”

Reimers wishes she had never worked in this industry. The family has been trying to sell their business for several years without success. As she waits to see how her appeal to the Supreme Court plays out, she is considering all her options.

Reimers could refuse to work in a business that could help her obtain citizenship in the future. Unlike the eligibility standards for a green card, the "good moral character" standard for citizenship typically only considers an applicant's last five years.

“I was hoping I could visit my grandmother. I thought that if I became a citizen, maybe I could help my mother. But I’m incapacitated,” she said. - I was cut off. There's really not much I can do."

She paused.

“However, I can continue to pay taxes,” Reimers said.

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