Marijuana and Immigration

Although seemingly unrelated, there is a very strong overlap of values between the immigration and marijuana movements. Of course there would be some demographic concordance, but there is much more: the history of marijuana law, as well as much of 1930s immigration law that we still use today, was rooted in marketing campaigns that painted Mexican immigrants as violent drug users trying to steal jobs. While the rhetoric has changed, it is the negative, skewed views on minorities, immigrants, economics and poverty that still drive much of both marijuana and immigration policy.

Immigration stands at the intersection of economic policies and social policies that strongly implicate race. It is one of the aspects of law which, at times, invokes a unique blend of ugly politics. For example, Gabby Pacheco, an undocumented immigrant organizer with United We Dream, recounted to me that the Ku Klux Klan protested against her as she traveled the country demonstrating for the DREAM Act. The Klan protesters echoed old accusations when they said they believed she would dilute the racial purity of the country and steal 'American' jobs.

Gabby's is unfortunately only one anecdotal yet representative story in a long, ugly history of racial animus that has been a burden on new immigrant groups, whether they are the Latinos and Asians crossing the border today, or my own Irish ancestors who came through Ellis Island a hundred years ago.

Gabriel's story may have nothing to do with marijuana on the surface, but some of the laws that continue to affect her life as an immigrant today were written based on the same campaigns that demonized marijuana use.

In the 1920s, marijuana first became linked to immigration issues, as Mexicans began to flee to the U.S. in the wake of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Those who came had a much stronger marijuana culture than the Americans whom they met as they entered the country, and soon marijuana became associated with immigration.

When those campaigning against the 'Marijuana Menace' were giving official testimony on the issue, they offered statements like the following:

"I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That's why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions."

This sentiment was offered by Harry Anslinger, the U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics from 1937-1962, whose views still influence today's drug war.

The big push against the "Marijuana Menace" came at a time that was extremely difficult for everyone, but for immigrant workers especially: The Great Depression.

During the Depression, massive unemployment increased public resentment and fear of Mexican immigrants, escalating public and governmental concern about the 'problem' of marijuana that had become associated with them. This instigated a flurry of research linking the use of marijuana to violence, crime, and other socially deviant behaviors. Studies found these behaviors to be committed by "racially inferior," "underclass" communities. Tactics like this can still be seen today, such as in the flawed and inflated Heritage Foundation's findings in its report, "The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer." By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana.

This history leads us to today's immigration and drug laws, under which, until recently, an immigrant with a green card was automatically deported if caught sharing a joint.

In the case Moncrieffe v. Holder, the court considered the question of whether the "social sharing of a small amount of marijuana" would continue to constitute an "aggravated felony" under immigration law, and thus require mandatory deportation; before this case, anyone with a green card busted passing a joint was eligible for deportation.

Moncrieffe is a Jamaican immigrant who came to the United States thirty years ago at the age of three and still holds a valid green card today, but only after a long legal struggle. Moncrieffe was busted with a few joints and pled guilty to a possession with intent to distribute charge. Ordinarily, this would not become a Supreme Court case. However, this minor drug charge turned into grounds for his mandatory deportation, without so much as a word in front of a judge.

After the case began and made its way up the chain of appeals, in an unusually lopsided 7-2 decision (rare in our times), the Supreme Court decided against the mandatory deportation. They noted, however, that Moncrieffe could still be deported for said joints; all the Court did was to take out the "mandatory" provision, so his fate is still in the hands of the courts.

Moncrieffe is only one of many immigrants who could still be deported for something most people in this country do not believe should be criminalized. This also reminds us all that the "War on Drugs" has had a disproportionate impact on certain communities, and it is those who are most vulnerable, such as immigrants, who are the hardest hit.

As we progress through the next round of discussions on immigration reform, we will need to discuss further how marijuana law will continue to impact peoples' immigration status. Considering that much of immigration law has a "character" requirement or background check, the way the laws are reshaped will doubtlessly drastically affect the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrants and mixed-status communities.