Under the narrative often offered by those who seek to restrict immigration, there is a “good immigrant” who contributes to the growth of the country, and a “bad immigrant” who is undocumented and therefore must be a criminal and deported immediately.
But life is never that simple. As demonstrated by a recent case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, there are many grey areas. That case also demonstrates the importance of good legal counsel.
In the case of Lee v. United States, Jae Lee was a legal permanent U.S. resident of 35 years – who moved here with his family when he was 13 – and he’s an entrepreneur with two self-started restaurants. Lee was also charged with a drug crime. He entered a guilty plea to criminal drug charges after being repeatedly assured by his lawyer that he would not be deported for the conviction.
But the attorney was wrong. Lee’s guilty plea qualified as one of a myriad of crimes which, even for legal permanent residents who have lived here for decades, result in mandatory deportation. Had he been a naturalized citizen, he would have served his sentence and been able to move on with his life.
Lee v. United States highlights a real challenge for many immigrants under Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement efforts: if the breadwinner of a family or a local business owner faces deportation for a criminal offense, entire families and communities are implicated in the consequences.
In Lee, the court recognized the severity and hardship of deportation for many immigrants, and how important it is for immigrants and their families to stay in this country and contribute to their communities. In many cases, like for Lee, the U.S. is the only country with which that immigrant has real connections.
The fact is that lawful permanent residency does not grant the same protections as citizenship. In the criminal justice system, lawful permanent residents can be subject to deportation. But naturalized citizens cannot, which is why it’s so important for eligible legal permanent residents to become citizens.
This case also highlights another important issue related to justice. While the myth exists that most Asian Americans are affluent and a “model minority,” the truth is that many ethnic groups within the Asian American population live at or below the poverty line. When facing the possibility of entering the criminal justice system, many Asian Americans face the same fate as many other communities of color and rural communities – an inability to afford strong legal counsel while confronting a complex legal system.
This will only get worse as the administration ramps up deportation enforcement activities and, at the same time, attempts to eliminate legal aid to poor people. The current budget proposal put forth in Congress is likewise insufficient. Funding must be kept at appropriate levels to ensure that everyone has access to justice as the Constitution requires.
And until Congress fixes our broken immigration system, inadequate legal aid for poor people and an increased focus on needless deportations will only lead to more cases like Lee’s.
The narrative of fear and vitriol must be changed. We all make mistakes. To suggest that Lee’s infraction makes him less American and less desirable to remain in the U.S. is an unduly harsh and an unjust assessment. In this country of immigrants, we can do better.
John C. Yang is the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 1991 in Washington, D.C. with the mission to advance the civil and human rights for Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all.
Vanita Gupta is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States.