Prosecutors Protect Immigrants From Deportation For Minor Crimes

May 31, 2017
Originally published on May 31, 2017 3:41 pm
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Prosecutors have wide latitude when negotiating plea deals. It typically depends on the facts of each case. In several U.S. cities now, prosecutors are using their discretion to protect defendants who are immigrants. They want to ensure that immigrants, whether here illegally or seeking citizenship, don't get deported for minor crimes. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: In 20 years as a prosecutor in Brooklyn, one case stands out for Eric Gonzalez. The defendant was a legal permanent resident from Haiti arrested on a trespassing charge. Police also found a small amount of cocaine on him.

ERIC GONZALEZ: He did not plead to the trespass charge. He pled to the drug charge.

GONZALES: The Haitian got community service and stayed out of trouble, eventually getting married and holding down two jobs. But that plea deal would come back to haunt him. In 2010, he returned to Haiti to check on his family after the devastating earthquake there. On his way back, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents noticed his drug conviction.

GONZALEZ: And when he came back home, he landed in Florida, and he was detained by ICE and put into removal proceedings based on, you know, over 10-year-old drug conviction.

GONZALES: Gonzalez says the man's deportation might have been avoided. If he had pled guilty to the trespassing charge instead, he wouldn't have run afoul of federal immigration laws. Gonzalez is now the acting district attorney in his native Brooklyn and the state's first Hispanic district attorney. About one-third of the New York borough's residents are immigrants.

GONZALEZ: And with the current climate that's coming from D.C. and the immigration policies that President Trump has been pushing out into the community, there's been great fear.

GONZALES: Gonzalez believes non-citizens can face a sort of double jeopardy, - getting deported sometimes years after serving their sentences on criminal charges. So he recently instructed his staff - about 500 prosecutors - to consider a defendant's immigration status when negotiating plea deals for minor nonviolent offenses.

Baltimore prosecutors recently received similar instructions. They were told to consider the collateral consequences of prosecuting immigrants for minor crimes. In California, a state law goes even further. It instructs prosecutors to consider the immigration status of defendants in plea negotiations regardless of whether it's a misdemeanor or felony.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently blasted local officials who don't prosecute immigrants to the fullest extent possible.

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JEFF SESSIONS: It troubles me that we've seen district attorneys openly brag about not charging cases appropriately under the laws of our country so that - provides an opportunity for individuals not to be convicted of a crime that might lead to deportation.

GONZALES: Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to pursue harsher charges against immigrants in the country illegally, but the prosecutors who want to show leniency say that doesn't mean they aren't tough on crime. Gonzalez says Brooklyn prosecutors are still seeking similar sentences even though they are agreeing to lesser charges. Nancy O'Malley is the district attorney of Alameda County, just east of San Francisco.

NANCY O'MALLEY: This is definitely not a free pass.

GONZALES: O'Malley says immigration is just one of many factors her office takes into account during plea negotiations.

O'MALLEY: What's their background? What is the consequence if, you know, a nursing student has a minor drug case? Do we want to stop that person's career growth because of a minor drug case and she's never done anything else?

GONZALES: Immigrants, these prosecutors say, deserve special consideration too. Officials in Denver are also looking at ways to protect immigrants who are low-level offenders. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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