A Pennsylvania representative has filed legislation to remove the subject of cannabis from application forms intended to establish the “good moral character” of immigrants.
In April of 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cemented its stance on marijuana use. In policy guidance, the agency clarified that engaging in any cannabis-related “activities” can disqualify immigrants from the citizenship process, regardless of if the “activities” took place in a state or country where marijuana is fully legal.
In the brief memo, the agency states that any “violation of federal controlled substance law, including for marijuana, established by a conviction or admission, is generally a bar to establishing GMC (good moral character) for naturalization even where the conduct would not be a violation of state law.”
During the applications preceding naturalization—the process of gaining citizenship in the U.S.—immigrants must establish a personal history of “good moral character”. But according to USCIS, not only is the use of marijuana an immoral offense – working for a dispensary in an adult-use state is enough to dash any hopes for citizenship.
The memo continues to clarify that an immigrant, “who is involved in certain marijuana related activities may lack GMC (good moral character) if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity is not unlawful under applicable state or foreign laws,” such as working in a legal cannabis market in an adult-use state.
When the memo was initially released, state representatives and cannabis activists both criticized the policy, with Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) commenting, “in Colorado, cannabis has been legal for 5 years. For work in a legal industry to be used against an individual trying to gain citizenship is a prime example of why we need to harmonize our state and federal laws to ensure that states like Colorado that have moved to legalize cannabis can act in our own authority to expand and regulate our cannabis industry.”
At the time of the memo’s release, there had already been multiple reports of people being denied full citizenship due to involvement in state-legal marijuana facilities. Oswaldo Barrientos, who—as a baby—came to the U.S. with his mother over three decades ago, is a victim of such circumstances. During a citizenship interview in the fall of 2018, Oswaldo was caught off-guard by pointed questions about his job at a Colorado dispensary.
He didn’t realize that answering the immigration officer would result in a denial of citizenship. Barrientos said, “from that second, I was trapped. I was led down a path to confess in my interview that I broke the law, that I willingly had known that I had broken the law.”
Weeks after the interview, Oswaldo received his denial letter. The reasoning included: working in a legal Colorado marijuana dispensary accounts for a lack of “good moral character”. Attempting to justify the policy, the agency says that, “classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law means that certain conduct involving marijuana, which is in violation of the CSA, continues to constitute a conditional bar to GMC (good moral character) for naturalization eligibility, even where such activity is not a criminal offense under state law.”
While many politicians simply saw the memo as further strengthening then-President Trump’s anti-immigration policies, cannabis activists noted a connection between the policing of marijuana and the destruction of black and brown lives. Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance explained that, “the cruel treatment of immigrants for offenses related to something as minor as marijuana is illustrative of the way [the Trump] administration has used the war on drugs to pursue communities of color. It also shows that pursuing a state by state approach to federal policy doesn’t work for these communities. Federal descheduling is essential.”
Regardless of the intent behind the policy, lawmakers have been working to implement a change.
Marijuana Use Wouldn’t Affect Immigrants’ “Good Moral Character” Under New Bill
In reaction to USCIS’s immigration policy guidance, a group of ten senators wrote to Kevin McAleenan and William Barr—heads of the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice at the time—urging them to alter the application process and allow people working in legal cannabis markets to acquire citizenship.
That letter followed an initial statement signed by 43 House members and led by Representatives Joe Neguse (D-CO), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Kelly Armstrong (D-ND). The lawmakers wrote, “as you know, over 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. Hence, implementing a policy that targets naturalization applicants based solely on their lawful employment in this industry creates conflicts of law with over two-thirds of American states and territories.”
Regarding the purpose of the letter, Rep. Armstrong explained, “Thirty-four states throughout the country have some form of legalized marijuana. The federal government is penalizing people for working in a legal industry in those states. That’s terrible public policy. With this bipartisan letter, we’re urging DHS and DOJ to respect the settled expectations on cannabis.”
Despite the continued pressure from lawmakers, the allegedly-crooked immigration policy remains in place. But if Rep. Brendan Boyle’s (D-PA) efforts count for anything, that won’t be the case for long.
He’s filed a bill to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act, not allowing officials to consider marijuana use, possession, and distribution in determining whether someone is of “good moral character”. In addition, the bill would also axe a controversial question pertaining to previous alcohol use: “Have you ever been a habitual drunkard?”
“These questions are wholly unrelated to citizenship,” Rep. Boyle explained. “Moreover, prospective citizens should not be penalized for relatively harmless and non-criminal offenses. This careless language only serves to reinforce societal stigmas and misunderstandings about substance abuse, and it is time we modernize the process.”
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