The New York Daily News | Undocumented Jamaican man's citizenship dreams thwarted by 1993 weed conviction
By Edgar Sandoval and Stephen Rex Brown
June 5th, 2018
A hard-working, undocumented Jamaican man’s hopes of becoming a U.S. citizen have gone up in smoke due to a marijuana conviction from 1993.
Now the immigrant, who the Daily News is only identifying by his first name, Howard, is in talks with the office of Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark to have his minor weed conviction vacated, paving the way for another attempt at a green card.
“I feel like I’m paying for the same mistakes over and over. I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes,” Howard said in an interview with the Daily News at a diner near Yankee Stadium.
“I’m not blaming nobody for what I did. But I faced the judge. Now I feel like these mistakes will haunt me forever.
“That was a lifetime ago. I’m a different man now, old and wise.”
Howard, 48, received an official rejection letter on December 28 from Citizenship and Immigration Services informing him he did not qualify for citizenship due to his 1993 guilty plea for unlawful possession of marijuana.
Howard has raised four kids and has a U.S. citizen wife who is suffering from multiple sclerosis. He works for a moving company and is active in his church. He’s spent 26 years in America – but can’t help but feel like an outsider.
“I feel invisible. I don’t belong here and I haven’t been to my country in so long that I don’t feel like I belong there, either,” he said.
“Worse comes to worse I may have to start from scratch at 48 in Jamaica. I haven’t been able to visit my family either. I’m stuck.”
Howard’s attorney at the Legal Aid Society, Casey Dalporto, said that his ordeal highlighted the disproportionate impact of a minor marijuana offenses — particularly on immigrants. She noted that Howard’s arrest record was unremarkable for a black man who lived in the Bronx in the 1990s, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani used the Broken Windows theory of policing to crack down on crime.
The impact of the conviction on his immigration status showed how “punitive and unforgiving both systems are,” Dalporto said.
“They didn’t take into account that marijuana convictions have hugely important impacts on housing, employment, and in this case, immigration,” she said.
Howard arrived in New York in 1992 to visit an older brother. He was only 22, overstayed his Visa and fell in with a group of friends who he said “were on the police radar.”
He was arrested twice in 1993. The first time for unlawful possession of marijuana, resulting in an acquittal in contemplation of dismissal. The second time he pleaded guilty to the same charge — a decision that came back to haunt him this year, when his petition to be granted a green card was denied because he could not produce court records showing the amount of weed he possessed was less than 30 grams, or over one ounce.
Dalporto says he had less than that amount, but that all records pertaining to the minor offense appear to have been destroyed.
A spokeswoman with the Bronx District Attorney’s Office confirmed they had received Howard’s request to vacate his conviction.
“(We) are giving it care and consideration,” the spokeswoman said.
A subsequent conviction 1997 for disorderly conduct has no impact on Howard’s petition for legal status, Dalporto said.
Howard’s attempt at redemption comes amid a growing movement to legalize marijuana in New York. Last week, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie suggested the criminal records of people with recreational marijuana charges should be cleared if weed becomes legal.
“We want people to come out of the shadows and any laws we consider regarding marijuana use should also take into account our immigrant population,” Heastie told the Daily News.
Howard’s grandfather in Jamaica is 101 years old, but he was unable to join his relatives during a recent visit back to the island for fear he wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S.
“I tell my kids enjoy your life. Don’t make my same mistakes so you won’t have to feel invisible like me,” he said.
“I live with anxiety. If I see an immigration official or even a police officer I walk the other way. Talk about high blood pressure.”
But he said that things can never get any worse than they did in December when he received the rejection letter for legal status.
“I enjoy every day with my wife and children, because it may be my last time with them here,” he said. “That’s all I can do.”