One-Day Sentence Reduction Would Protect Immigrants from Deportation

New York State Sen. Jessica Ramos, speaking at a rally for justice reform. (Photo via El Diario)

In November 2016, José B. was convicted for a Class A misdemeanor which, according to the current New York laws, entails a maximum sentence of 365 days in prison. While the Colombian maintains his innocence and says that being in jail has been the most terrible experience of his life, this is not even the worst part.

When this happened, he was in the middle of the process of adjusting his immigration status, and even though he got a sentence of only a few months in prison, his immigration benefits were denied for having on his record a misdemeanor conviction possibly resulting in a one-year sentence. Also, a deportation order was filed against him.

“My life changed from that moment on. When I was a teenager I didn’t understand the laws well and I pled guilty for something bigger than what I did, and now I live with the constant fear of being detained by ‘la migra’ and sent back to Colombia,” said the youth, who works as a waiter in a Manhattan restaurant. “I always knew that I had committed a minor offense, but I think I paid too big a price because I got misled. And yet, immigration laws are not considering my situation and I’m being treated as a criminal.”

According to the Immigrant Defense Project, José is just one of thousands of immigrants in the State of New York among the 90,000 people who every year are convicted for a Class A misdemeanor. Although 40 percent don’t end up doing jail time, and only 4 percent get the maximum sentence, the fact that in New York such a conviction potentially carries a one-year sentence can be considered by immigration authorities as grounds for losing benefits. Even if they only get a one-day sentence, immigrants can face the prospect of being removed from the country.

Seeking to protect immigrants and end this situation, state Sen. Jessica Ramos is pushing in Albany the bill S1825A, which seeks to shorten the maximum jail sentence for Class A misdemeanor from one year to 364 days. This one-day change would remove many immigrants from the category of deportable, and would save their benefits. Under immigration law, certain minor convictions punishable for one year or more can lead to detention and deportation.

“This little change (…) would protect thousands of New Yorkers from the harsh, unnecessary consequences of immigration laws,” said Sen. Ramos, adding that the state legislature is under the obligation of finding ways to protect immigrant families. “In spite of not having jurisdiction over federal immigration laws, we are able to ensure that immigrants accused of small, Class A offenses, are not put in a deportation process (…)”

For Ramos, who was born in New York when her mother was undocumented, (…) the “one-day law” is also “an act of fairness” to counter abuses committed against vulnerable communities.

“Unfortunately, we live in a state where the judicial process is not always fair, and we often see immigrants being pressured into pleading guilty in spite of not having committed a crime, and without understanding their rights as undocumented New Yorkers,” said the Queens representative.

Alisa Wellek, executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project, explained that in immigration cases, 365-day sentences not only affect undocumented people but also other immigrants who are in the process of obtaining or qualifying for some immigration relief, and who would also benefit from Ramos’ bill.

“Immigrant New Yorkers face a great risk of being permanently separated from their loved ones due to incredibly strict immigration laws that severely limit due process for certain green card holders, asylees and undocumented immigrants with only a minor offense (…),” said the activist.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson also supports the Albany bill (…)

Juan Cartagena, president of organization Latino Justice, celebrated that Albany and Sen. Ramos are “taking care of defending immigrants.” (…)

Javier H. Valdés, co director of Make the Road New York, pointed out that this bill, which has already been approved in other states such as California, Washington, Nevada, New Jersey, Illinois and New Mexico, provides an important protection at a time in which the Trump administration keeps attacking and separating immigrant families.

(…) Another sign of hope for the bill is the formal support announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

(…) In spite of the bill’s benefits, the Immigrant Defense Project warned that the change would not mean the end of all immigration-related consequences for Class A misdemeanors. Federal laws contemplate that some minor offenses related to controlled substances, minor abuse, domestic violence and fire gun offenses, among others, still could be grounds for deportation, regardless of the sentence, as well as having committed more than one of the offenses considered “against morals.”

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