While recreational marijuana becomes legal in Illinois, starting in January, immigrants who are not citizens should stay away from it.
Under federal immigration law, the sale or possession of marijuana is still illegal, and it can trigger deportation proceedings or keep immigrants from benefits, including naturalization.
“Participating in the marijuana industry or using marijuana can have immigration consequences, even if you aren’t arrested and even if you don’t have a criminal conviction,” said immigration attorney Lindsay Fullerton, who is part of the American Immigration Lawyer Association’s cannabis task force.
“Simply admitting to an immigration official that you’ve violated the federal marijuana laws or sometimes even if the immigration official has a reason to believe that you’ve sold marijuana that can also have immigration consequences,” Fullerton said.
Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of the PASO West Suburban Action Project, said this is a serious problem because the news of recreational marijuana’s legalization in Illinois has gathered a lot of media attention. However, most reports fail to mention the negative consequences for noncitizens.
“It’s very scary because the consequences are potential deportation or being denied entry into the United States or being prohibited from getting legal status,” Ruiz-Velasco said.
PASO and 11 other immigrant rights organizations will hold a press conference Wednesday to alert the immigrant community about the negative impacts that the possession or sale of marijuana can have on immigrants.
Among the immigrants who should stay away from marijuana include more than 530,000 legal permanent residents living in Illinois and recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.
Illinois has the third highest number of DACA recipients in the country. There are more than 128,700 immigrants who’ve received temporary protection through DACA between fiscal year 2012 and June 2019, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Immigrants with temporary protection status could be affected as well as those with student visas, tourist visas, humanitarian visas or u-visas among other visas.
Ruiz-Velasco said immigrants who live with a U.S. citizen working in the cannabis industry could be negatively impacted, too.
Legal permanent residents in the process of becoming citizens should be very careful, she said. In April, USCIS issued a clarification to its policy regarding marijuana use. The policy said “violation of federal controlled substance law, including marijuana, established by a conviction or admission, is generally a bar to establishing good moral character for naturalization even where the conduct would not be a violation of state law.”
Earlier this year, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana. The law takes effect in Illinois in January. Since the law’s passage, there’s been almost no discussion about how legalization would impact immigrant communities. There have been limited efforts at the state level to warn noncitizen immigrants.
Immigration advocates say a statewide campaign is needed to inform immigrants. WBEZ reached out to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, and his team provided the following statement,
“The Governor’s strong beliefs that cannabis legalization be implemented with equity at the center and result in criminal justice reform have guided every step of creating this new industry in Illinois. The administration is meeting with stakeholders to ensure advocates are getting the education they need and can share that information with communities around the state,” said Jordan Abudayyeh in a written statement on Monday.
Immigration lawyers offer the following advice:
Remove photos or text messages about marijuana use from your phone and social media accounts. In some cases, immigration officials have access to those accounts.
Don’t work in the marijuana industry — even if you’re a legal permanent resident or have a work authorization.
Don’t admit to immigration officials that you have possessed or sold marijuana unless a qualified immigration or criminal defense attorney has advised you this is safe.
If you’re a noncitizen who has possessed or sold marijuana, talk to a lawyer before traveling abroad.
Under the new Illinois law, the government will automatically expunge and vacate certain marijuana convictions. But those convictions will still have an impact on your immigration case. Immigrants should obtain a certified copy of any criminal case related to any previous marijuana conviction. (Those cases might automatically be expunged or vacated, but immigrants will still need those records for federal immigration authorities.)
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Mony Ruiz-Velasco’s last name.