Imagine being sent away from the country you consider home, away from your wife and 3-year-old son, both United States citizens. Now imagine finding out you never should have been deported – but that the US government still wants to keep you out.
That’s the story of Kenault Lawrence, who was deported to Jamaica in January 2013, labeled a drug trafficker and an aggravated felon for two 2009 marijuana-related convictions for which he had served three months in county jail years before. Several months after his deportation, the US Supreme Court ruled in Moncrieffe v. Holder that convictions like Lawrence’s do not constitute a “drug trafficking” aggravated felony. Under Moncrieffe, Lawrence would not have faced automatic deportation, but would have had a strong chance of staying in the US, because of his extended US citizen family, steady work history, and years of residence in the US.
Every year, tens of thousands of people, including legal residents, are deported after convictions for drug offenses, including for old offenses and those that resulted in little or no prison time in the criminal justice system. Although these harsh and draconian laws continue to result in exile and family separation for many, the US Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions over the years that have chipped away at the US government’s efforts to interpret the aggravated felony of “drug trafficking” in overly broad and sometimes ludicrous ways. In Moncrieffe, decided by a 7-2 majority, the Supreme Court declared, “Once again we hold that the Government approach defies ‘the commonsense conception”’ of these terms.”
But when Lawrence finally found pro bono counsel from the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR) and tried to reopen his case this year, the US government opposed his motion. The government refuses to bring him back to the US for the kind of individual hearing he should have received three years ago.
President Barack Obama recently commuted the sentences of 46 people serving long terms for drug offenses. In a letter to one man who received a commutation, Obama wrote that his power to grant clemency “embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction.”
But his administration has been unwilling to give Lawrence and so many other erring immigrants a second chance. As his wife Melissa told me, “He messed up, he did jail time already, he did probation, he did everything he was supposed to,” yet “he’s paying over and over and over for it.” And Lawrence isn’t the only one paying the price. Melissa, a waitress, struggles financially and emotionally to raise their son, Devario, alone. And Lawrence’s stepmother, who raised him, has cancer and fears she may never see him again.
A diverse coalition of organizations, including Human Rights Watch, is supporting Lawrence and his family in their campaign to bring him back to the US. You, too, can urge the US government to bring Kenault Lawrence home by signing the petition here #bringkenaulthome.