Blurring the line between immigration and criminal laws

justneighborslogo-nov-05by Jacob Hanger, summer writing team

I’m currently an intern at Just Neighbors, an organization based in Northern Virginia that provides legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees. We have an extraordinary team of lawyers who are devoted to helping a marginalized subset of the American population that often finds itself voiceless when dealing with our country’s legal system. We have had clients from 116 different countries, and demand for our services is so high that we frequently have to turn away individuals simply because we do not have enough staff to take every case comes looking for help.

At work, I had the opportunity to talk to Allison Ruland-Soulen, Just Neighbor’s Director of Legal Services, and Alex Boston, Just Neighbor’s Executive Director. Our conversation revolved around specific instances of injustice they have encountered during their years practicing immigration law. The following discussion is the result of this conversation.

Immigration law can be particularly unjust when the separation between Immigration Law and Criminal Law blurs. The two systems are sophisticated on their own – unfortunately, when they begin sharing jurisdiction they can sometimes become clumsy. For instance, a few years ago a lawyer at Just Neighbors had a case where a Cuban man was in the process of applying for his green card. The man struggled with alcoholism, and had been caught twice stealing a can of beer from a convenience store. He was denied his green card because of two beers.

What happened was this: in this man’s case, the immigration side of his case was motivated by humanitarian purposes. The fact that he is Cuban makes him a political asylee in the eyes of the American government. On the criminal side, however, he had two crimes of moral turpitude (defined as conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals) on his record. Our criminal law states that only one offense of moral turpitude can be overlooked in the case of Cubans applying for green cards. This law is obviously meant to prevent criminals guilty of much bigger crimes, but in the case of this Cuban, he was denied residency in the U.S. due to the fact that he stole less than $3 dollars of merchandise. The humanitarian aspect of his case was left untouched, but the criminal side trumped it and he now has to live in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. Undoubtedly an injustice.

To explore another instance of injustice, answer this question: what do you think our government prizes more?  Domestic violence or love?  If you said domestic violence, you are right. If a United States citizen marries an undocumented immigrant who crossed the border without going through customs, there is no way for the U.S. citizen to petition for his or her spouse to be granted citizenship. The only way an undocumented immigrant who is married to a U.S. citizen can get status is if he or she has been the victim of domestic violence and reports it to the police. In other words, if a U.S. Citizen marries an undocumented immigrant who crossed the border without going through customs, the immigrant cannot become a U.S. citizen but if the U.S. Citizen abuses the immigrant, the immigrant can get citizenship relatively quickly.  It certainly is an injustice that domestic violence trumps marriage in our system of immigration.

There are more situations where this blurring causes injustice. The takeaway here is that we need to be vigilant about the unintended consequences our laws might have. Ultimately, the people who can change these laws are responsible to U.S. citizens, so if you ever notice a particular injustice at the hand of the law, write your congressman or congresswoman and let them know!