Question: I am a Lawful Permanent Resident and have been convicted of a drug crime of possession. I have heard that there is no chance to win in Immigration Court. Is this true?
Answer: Since 1996, the list of crimes constituting aggravated felonies was increased tenfold. Since that time, there have been numerous Petitions for Review filed in Circuit Courts of Appeal to determine which crimes actually fall under the ambit of an aggravated felony.
One such crime deals with convictions for drugs. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 101(a)(43), a ‘drug trafficking’ crime is considered to be an aggravated felony. Thus, the critical point is what is considered to be a drug trafficking crime. The case Cazarez-Gutierrez v. Ashcroft has ruled on what they consider to be a drug trafficking crime.
Petitioner Jesus Aaron Cazarez-Gutierrez (“Cazarez-Gutierrez”) appealed the decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) finding him statutorily ineligible for cancellation of removal because he was convicted of the “aggravated felony” of a “drug trafficking crime.” Id. People who have their ‘Green Cards’ and are long time lawful permanent residents in the U.S. are generally eligible for what is known as cancellation of removal. This is where the immigration judge essentially decides whether all of the resident’s equities outweigh the crime.
A lawful permanent resident is eligible for discretionary cancellation of removal if he: (1) has been lawfully admitted for permanent residence for not less than five years; (2) has resided in the United States continuously for seven years after having been admitted in any status; and (3) has not been convicted of any aggravated felony. 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(a). If cancellation of removal is granted, then the resident is given his or her ‘Green Card’ back and allowed to stay in the United States.
However, if one has been convicted of an aggravated felony, they are not eligible for Cancellation of Removal. Thus, in Gutierrez, supra, the immigration court and the BIA ruled that he was ineligible for cancellation of removal because he was convicted of an aggravated felony.
The first two elements of eligibility for cancellation of removal are not at issue. This case turns upon whether Cazarez-Gutierrez’s state-court felony conviction for possession of methamphetamine is an aggravated felony for immigration purposes.
In January 1999, an Immigration Judge (“IJ”) found Cazarez-Gutierrez removable because of his conviction, but exercised his discretion to grant him cancellation of removal. The government appealed the decision, arguing that the IJ had abused his discretion in granting Cazarez-Gutierrez cancellation of removal. On August 30, 2002, the BIA reversed the cancellation of removal, holding that Cazarez-Gutierrez is statutorily ineligible for cancellation of removal because his conviction for possession of methamphetamine is an “aggravated felony”.
The court went into some analysis of how other circuits have ruled. It stated that Congress had passed these laws in order to try to give some uniformity to the immigration laws. Therefore, this court ruled that a state drug offense is an aggravated felony for immigration purposes only if it would be punishable as a felony under federal drug laws or the crime contains a trafficking element. It followed the general reasoning of the Second and Third Circuit Courts of Appeal and rejected the contrary view put forth in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. Given the strong desirability of uniformity in the application of immigration law, the court ruled that it should interpret immigration law to be nationally uniform absent clear indication that Congress intended otherwise.
In analyzing the intent of Congress to make the laws uniform in this type of case, the court referred to the development of the definitions of “aggravated felony” and “drug trafficking crime” in the INA and how it showed that Congress intended a federal definition for those terms.
In summary, the court held that a state drug offense is not an aggravated felony for immigration purposes unless it is punishable as a felony under the CSA or other federal drug laws named in the definition of “drug trafficking crime,” or is a crime involving a trafficking element. Cazarez-Gutierrez’s offense, possession of methamphetamine, was not punishable as a felony under federal law and involves no trafficking element. Therefore, his offense is not an aggravated felony for immigration purposes, and the BIA erred in finding Cazarez-Gutierrez statutorily ineligible for cancellation of removal.
Thus, you should apply for and be eligible for cancellation of removal in order to keep your Lawful Permanent Resident Status.