War on Drugs and Noncitizens

Policymakers from both sides of the political spectrum have come to agree that the decades-long “war on drugs” has been ineffective, wasteful and harmful, particularly for communities of color. Harsh policies such as minimum mandatory sentencing have aggravated the underlying challenges that lead to addiction and corroded the fabric of whole communities. Meanwhile, valuable government resources have been diverted to incarcerate millions of people, most of whom are black or Latino. While many states and local jurisdictions have taken important steps to end war-on-drugs policies, immigration laws have not adapted. 

Lawful permanent residents and other noncitizens face deportation and, at times, lifelong family separation for drug charges that many states would consider minor offenses.

Human Rights Watch documents how drug convictions result in life-altering consequences for noncitizens and their families, in a 2015 report titled “A Price Too High: U.S. Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses.” Lawful permanent residents (LPRs), many of whom have spent much of their lives in the United States, can be deported for any drug offense, except possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana. “Drug trafficking,” which could include a drug sale of only $10, is considered an aggravated felony, bars LPRs from any protection against deportation and strips an immigration judge’s ability to use discretion in the case. Drug convictions also bar unauthorized immigrants from applying for legal immigration status, even if they can show that family members who are U.S. citizens would suffer extreme hardship should their status adjustment be denied. Additionally, almost all noncitizens who face deportation due to drug charges are held for long periods in immigrant detention centers with no opportunity for bond, forcing them to serve a second term of incarceration — often much longer than the original penalty.

The war on drugs and related immigration laws have separated thousands of families across the United States. ICE data obtained by Human Rights Watch showed that from 2007 to 2012, the U.S. deported more than 260,000 noncitizens whose most serious crime was a drug offense. One such person was Melida Ruiz, an LPR who was deported for a misdemeanor drug offense, her only conviction in over 30 years of living in the United States. Melida left behind her daughter Mercedez Ruiz and baby grandson Christopher Gonzalez.