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In California, if you are arrested for a minor drug offense and successfully complete a program under “deferred entry of judgment,” you can avoid jail time and even a criminal record. You can move on with your life – unless you are an immigrant.

That unequal treatment – which has led to deportations and split families –  may finally be set to end. This week, two bills aimed at ensuring equal justice for immigrants emerged out of the state assembly’s Public Safety Committee, the first step toward becoming law.

Assembly Bill (AB) 1351 and AB 1352 aim to correct one of the harshest aspects of United States immigration law toward non-citizens with drug convictions. In California, as in many jurisdictions around the country, defendants charged with minor drug offenses are often eligible for “diversion programs” in which, after they plead guilty, they are required to complete drug treatment or meet other terms focusing on rehabilitation. Upon successful completion, the charges are dismissed and the defendants can legally claim they have no arrest record. The principle behind such programs is that a minor drug offense should not lead to a conviction that could ruin the defendant’s life by limiting employment or other opportunities.

But under federal immigration law, defendants who plead guilty and participate in such diversion programs are considered to have convictions that make them deportable, even upon successful completion of the program. Non-citizens in California have been "mandatorily detained," deported and separated from their families, sometimes years later, for minor drug convictions that should have been put behind them.

AB 1351 corrects this injustice by changing California’s “deferred entry of judgment” program to “pre-plea diversion,” in which a defendant can participate without pleading guilty. AB 1352 provides that those who already pled guilty and successfully met the terms of the existing program can apply to withdraw their plea if they can show they were denied some benefit, including by being found deportable or subject to another immigration consequence.

Having researched the impact of harsh US drug enforcement on immigrants, I testified in support of AB 1351. (Human Rights Watch also supports AB 1352). It’s important that legislators understand the scope of the problem. Among our findings is the sheer number of people deported in recent years with drug convictions – over a quarter of a million in the US from 2007 to 2012.

In sharp contrast to the US Congress’s drawn-out stalemate on immigration, it was encouraging to see the California legislative committee carefully consider the serious deportation consequences immigrants face for minor drug offenses. These bills still have a long way to go before becoming law, but should they pass, they will serve as strong models of what state governments can do to protect immigrant families when the federal government won’t.

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