New Jersey Naturalization

Getting arrested and charged with a crime is a very frightening experience. Often, after a criminal charge, the accused person's gut instinct is to just get the process over with as soon as possible. Sometimes, this means pleading guilty even if there are reasonable grounds for acquittal.

This instinct can be dangerous for anyone, but it is even more perilous for immigrants who are in the country illegally. These individuals face possible incarceration and deportation even for minor, non-violent crimes. Before being deported, they may be required to spend months in prison, side-by-side with dangerous violent offenders.

Deportation for misdemeanor marijuana possession

A recent article in the Washington Post detailed a typical case involving deportation after a minor criminal offense.

The defendant in that case was a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant who had been charged with a misdemeanor marijuana offense. The state where he lived had made a policy decision not to impose jail time on individuals convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession crimes. As such, prosecutors were able to offer him a deal - he could plead guilty and accept a relatively light sentence of a $168 fine and a six-month driver's license suspension.

Nobody told the man that he would likely be deported if he pleaded guilty. They didn't have to. Criminal defense lawyers are required to inform defendants of the possible immigration consequences of a guilty plea, but, because the offense did not carry the possibility of jail time, the state was not required to appoint defense counsel on the man's behalf.

Two months after pleading guilty to the marijuana charge, the man was deported back to his home country.

Many calling for reform

Sadly, this man's case is just one of the many that happen every year in the United States.

Many immigration reform advocates are calling on the federal government to change the way it responds when undocumented immigrants are convicted of crimes. No family, they say, deserves to be split up - possibly forever - simply because someone made a mistake.

At the very least, these advocates say that immigrants who are facing deportation need to be informed of that possibility before they are allowed to plead guilty. This is especially true considering the fact that many people charged with low-level offenses are not entitled to public defenders. If they do not realize that the consequences of conviction can be so severe, they may not be eager to spend their limited resources on hiring a private criminal defense attorney.

In reality, though, securing the help of an experienced defense attorney is crucial whenever an immigrant - documented or not - is accused of a crime. An attorney's representation can make a huge difference with regard to the immigrant's ability to stay in the United States.