Why Are Immigrants Being Deported for Minor Crimes?

Since 1996, hundreds of thousands of longtime U.S. residents have been sent back to their native countries for small, non-violent infractions—and without courtroom trials.
Haitian-born Roland Sylvain (pictured with his family) came to the U.S. in 1985 as a lawful permanent resident. Today, he faces "aggravated felony" charges that began with a speeding ticket. (Immigrant Justice Network)

All they could tell him is that it had something to do with a felony in Virginia. There were three or four officers and they were forming people into lines. Roland Sylvain saw one officer disappear with another man from his line. “I told them, ‘I need to tell my wife where I’m going,’” said Sylvain, a longtime permanent resident who was married to a U.S. citizen. “She was seven months pregnant and crying on the deck of the ship. But the officer couldn’t—wouldn’t tell me anything.”

By the time Sylvain told me this story, he’d spent the past year repeating it to countless lawyers, describing how he’d been stopped as he disembarked with 20 other family members from a Fourth of July cruise in Tampa. The officers had led him through an empty parking lot and across the street into a white, nondescript building. Inside, he says, more officers took his fingerprints. Then they took his green card and passport.

Sylvain is one of thousands of immigrants who have been charged with “aggravated felonies” by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The term, first introduced in the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, applies specifically to immigrants and asylum-seekers: If they’re convicted of any of the crimes in this category, they can be deported and prohibited from reentering the U.S. for 20 years. In 1988, the list of aggravated felonies was limited to serious crimes such as murder and drug trafficking. But Congress expanded the definition over the years, most extensively in 1996.

The two 1996 laws—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA—came in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when Congress felt pressured to streamline new immigration reform. The measures made more than 20 new crimes into aggravated felonies, including counterfeit, perjury, and obstruction of justice. They also reduced threshold requirements from five years to one, meaning that any immigrant issued a one-year prison sentence could be instantly deportable.

Sylvain’s aggravated felony began with a speeding ticket. A decade before his  arrest in Tampa, he'd been pulled over in Virginia for exceeding the limit. Sylvain saw the signature line on the ticket and briefly panicked—his license had been suspended because he owed money on a previous ticket. Instead of signing his own name, he signed the name of his cousin, who was in the car with him. Then Sylvain panicked again and confessed to the officer right there on the spot. He was charged with forging public records and handed two suspended prison sentences, adding up to three years. But he never had to serve any time behind bars, and he never had another criminal conviction.

Allegra McLeod, an associate Professor of Law at Georgetown, examined cases like Sylvain’s in an article last year for the American Criminal Law Review. She writes that between 1990 and 2010, immigration offenses became the most common federally prosecuted crimes in the U.S. After 1996, when the new laws took effect, approximately one million immigrants were been deported as a result of criminal convictions. Moreover, Human Rights Watch's 2009 report Forced Apart estimates that 20 percent of those removed were longtime legal residents, and the majority of their crimes were minor, non-violent offenses.            

Last year, newspapers widely reported the story of Lundy Khoy, a green-card holder who was born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980 after her parents fled their native Cambodia. In 2000, when Khoy was a student at George Mason University, she was caught by the police with a handful of ecstasy tabs and arrested for intent to sell them. After serving three months in prison, Khoy was released for good behavior. But in 2004, she showed up for a regularly scheduled probation meeting and found the ICE waiting for her. She was detained and promptly imprisoned for nine more months.

If Khoy had been born in the United States, officials would not have been allowed to imprison her without due process of law. But the 1996 laws also eliminated judicial review for immigrants charged with aggravated felonies. Even President Bill Clinton seemed conflicted when he signed AEDPA into law, noting that it makes a number of major, ill-advised changes in our immigration laws having nothing to do with fighting terrorism. These provisions eliminate most remedial relief for long-term legal residents.” Although Clinton asked Congress to correct those provisions, they were still in place in April 2012 when Khoy learned that she was being recommended for deportation—despite the fact that her family had been in the United States since 1981 and she knew no one in her native Cambodia.

Presented by

Steve Patrick Ercolani is a data visualization fellow with National Journal. His work has appeared on Al Jazeera, NPR, and in the Village Voice.

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