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Iowa Man Faces Deportation for a Single Gram of Cannabis

October 3, 2017

In legal states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada, a single gram of cannabis sells for around $10. But in a prohibition state like Iowa, that same gram comes at a far greater cost—jail, a lost job, even deportation.

Luis Alvarez, 19, grew up in Des Moines. Now he faces deportation for possessing one gram of cannabis.

In Des Moines, Iowa, just an eight-hour drive from the Colorado state line, a single gram of cannabis sits at the heart of a case that could result in a teenager getting deported from the country he entered when he was less than a year old.

Luis Alvarez, now 19, grew up in Des Moines with dreams of being a professional soccer player, and went on to attend East High School.

During a traffic stop about a year ago, police discovered a gram of cannabis in his cousin’s car. As the youngest in the car—Alvarez had just turned 18—he didn’t think the minor offense would affect him the same way as his cousin, who was a U.S. citizen and already in college.

He was mistaken. It was his first offense, so Alvarez received one year on probation for the misdemeanor cannabis possession. But the offense led federal officials with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to incarcerate him and revoke his immigration status. ICE is now moving to deport Alvarez, who has remained in jail for five months, to Mexico, a country he has never known.

All because of a single gram of cannabis.

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A DACA Dreamer

Alvarez was living and working legally in this country as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented individuals to legally live and work in America, so long as they meet certain requirements.  When the Trump administration announced the end of the program last month, the fate of DACA registrants, often called “Dreamers,” has been thrown into question.

Alvarez received probation for the misdemeanor, but has remained behind bars for 5 months because of his immigration status.

Alvarez’s case is about more than the fate of the DACA program, though. Even if DACA were to have been extended by the White House, the minor nature of Alvarez’s offense seems to fit easily within the program’s guidelines. According to Alvarez’s lawyer, Ta-Yu Yang, possession of one gram of cannabis should not trigger the revocation of Dreamer status, regardless of the overall fate of the program.

Under Immigration and Naturalization Act, a person with Alvarez’s immigration status can be deported for a violation of any controlled substance law “other than a single offense involving possession for one’s own use of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

Based on that law, Yang appealed the revocation of Alvarez’s DACA status. The appeal was denied, and now Yang is taking Alvarez’s case to the Board of Immigration Appeals. He’s also appealing the denial of bond, which has kept Alvarez in jail for five months while his case works its way through the system.

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Due to the uncertainty of the DACA program, Yang is looking into other options for Alvarez to avoid deportation to Mexico. The program is still active, so there is no way to tell how DACA recipients would be received if forced to leave the country. Yang is contending that Alvarez and others would be “picked on and targeted” in Mexico. Because of that potential danger, the attorney argues that Alvarez is eligible to seek asylum in the United States.

“I think this is brand new ground,” Yang told Leafly. “It depends on what happens nationally” with DACA, Congress, and the White House. “There may not be a solution, and if there is no solution coming out of Congress, then the fact that we are appealing for asylum is a possible viable option.”

The Morales Precedent

Yang knows the danger of deportation better than most. In May, 2011, a Mexican national was arrested in Des Moines. Constantino Morales did not have money to hire an attorney, but a local advocacy group stepped in to help with his appeal for asylum.

That appeal was denied, and Morales was deported. Seven months later, Morales was shot and killed in Huehuetan, Mexico. Yang then stepped in to represent the family, and has already won asylum for two of Morales’ sons and two of his brothers.

Other Morales family members are also in the process of appealing for asylum. Unlike that case, though, Luis Alvarez has no proof that deportation would put him in danger. Yang said that hundreds of thousands of individuals apply for asylum from Mexico every year, and only 200 or so are granted asylum status by US immigration officials. Most of those granted asylum are police officers and journalists, who have often been targeted in Mexico’s ongoing drug cartel battles.

Outside of setting a precedent for DACA recipients seeking asylum, Alvarez’s case has also had effects at the local level. Yang said he had another client who had a marijuana charge, among more serious offenses, but that the Alvarez case influenced local authorities to drop the possession charge, because the other charge wasn’t serious enough to threaten that client’s DACA status.

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How Serious Is a Gram of Cannabis?

While Luis Alvarez’s case remains still undecided, Yang said he hopes the dropped charge in that other case is a sign that authorities will adhere to the original guidelines of the DACA program.

“DACA recipients do not become ineligible because of a criminal conviction,” Yang said. “It has to be something serious.”

“Luis’s case, he had one gram, and this is not even trying to get a green card, this is deportation. That is crazy. One gram for a teenager, and he’s been here since he was 11 months old.”

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Pat Radigan

Pat Radigan is a writer based in Sioux Falls, SD, and Lincoln, NE. A former sportswriter, Radigan is currently finishing up a master's degree in journalism at the University of Nebraska.

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