In court, shackled and wearing a jumpsuit, he didn’t look like the poster child for the opiate crisis. He wasn’t white. He didn’t have a good education. He didn’t come from a wealthy family. To the judge, he wasn’t a victim. He was a “dealer.”
This man ― let’s call him Samuel ― was the father of four U.S.-born children whose favorite place for family outings was Applebee’s. He was also a green-card holder who was now facing deportation. He had come to the United States in his teens, fleeing gang violence and a life marked by severe neglect and parental abandonment. When a serious accident landed him in a full body cast, bedridden for months, he took opiates prescribed by his doctor. He became addicted.
Like many people struggling with substance abuse, Samuel sold drugs sporadically to support his own use. He was convicted for selling one Percocet to an undercover cop and ordered to be deported to a country where gang members had already tried to kill him. His children would be left fatherless just as he had been left as a child.
One in five immigrants deported between January 2012 and October 2017 under the Secure Communities program had a nonviolent drug offense as their most serious conviction.
The opioid epidemic and our broken immigration system ― the two biggest crises facing America today ― are more connected than many people think. While the face of the opioid crisis has long been that of young white suburban adults or the housewives next door, black and brown people face just as great a risk of addiction and a greater risk of being criminalized for it. Among immigrants, the punishment for addiction can mean deportation.
One in five immigrants deported between January 2012 and October 2017 under the Secure Communities program had a nonviolent drug offense as their most serious conviction, according to TRAC Reports data. The reasons why people end up addicted to opioids are complex and varied, The clients we represent at The Bronx Defenders have often been exposed to trauma (not to mention structural systems of oppression), which places them at higher risk of addiction.
Researchers have identified economic and social factors fueling the opioid crisis ― it’s not just a simple matter of doctors overprescribing. Many immigrants have faced community violence, neglect, abuse, barriers to employment and social services, separation from their families, racism and xenophobia ― indeed a president who openly ridicules them. These types of trauma can lead to addiction, which leads to contact with the criminal justice system, which leads to immigration detention and — often — deportation.
Lawful permanent residents — or people with green cards in the U.S. — can be deported for a single conviction relating to a controlled substance. They are permanently exiled from their community, a penalty that far exceeds the already disparate punishment meted out by the criminal justice system. As for undocumented immigrants, just being accused of a crime now renders them an enforcement priority, which has led to an uptick in Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests in and around criminal courts.
Many immigrants have faced community violence, neglect, abuse, barriers to employment and social services, separation from their families, racism and xenophobia. … These types of trauma can lead to addiction.
Forty-four percent of all immigrants and their U.S.-born minor children live in poverty or near poverty. They tend to reside in over-policed low-income areas, meaning they’re at risk of interactions with officers that could lead to an arrest that will land them in both criminal and immigration court. Immigrants of color, in particular, are victims of how law enforcement, the criminal courts and immigration judges conceptualize their behavior. And immigration courts are decades behind the current science showing that addiction is a relapsing condition that changes the way the brain functions, so immigrants with drug issues are not likely to find any leniency or compassion there.
The system can and must change. One route is through law enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD) programs, which view criminal behavior that is rooted in drug addiction as an opportunity to provide services that might actually assist someone battling addiction. Instead of being arraigned, people are given a mental health assessment and recommended for voluntary services. LEAD programs are operating throughout the country, including in Seattle and many rural Southern counties.
New York City, where I work, has no such program. New York courts offer limited initiatives to divert individuals from jail into rehabilitative programs. Even when such opportunities do exist, the accused is almost always required to enter a guilty plea before going into treatment. That guilty plea can be a basis for deportation even if the person completes the rehab program and has their original conviction reduced or vacated. This makes diversion programs essentially inaccessible to many non-citizens.
Two years ago, then-Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told NPR that “addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, and we need to treat it with the same urgency and compassion that we do with any other illness.”
But immigration judges do not treat addiction with urgency and compassion. Instead, they treat it as a moral failing, requiring people to apologize for their illness and beg for a second chance.
Can you imagine someone having to apologize to a judge for battling cancer and then being sent to their death under the guise of justice?
No. Neither can I.
Kristen Anderson is a social worker at The Bronx Defenders, a public defender nonprofit in New York City.