(Los Angeles, October 9, 2015) – California Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of one of two bills concerning immigrants charged with drug possession leaves many at risk of detention and deportation, Human Rights Watch said today. Brown signed one bill intended to help immigrants avoid deportation for low-level drug offenses, but vetoed the other on October 8, 2015.

California Governor Jerry Brown waits to speak during a news conference at the State Capitol in Sacramento on March 19, 2015. © 2015 Reuters


The signing of Assembly Bill (AB) 1352 is an important first step toward providing parity for immigrants charged with drug possession, but the veto of AB 1351 still requires immigrants to risk detention and deportation for pleading guilty to enter a drug rehabilitation program, Human Rights Watch said. The United States government regularly targets for deportation immigrants who have convictions for drug offenses, including offenses that are decades old or resulted in little or no prison time. The bills together would have ensured that immigrants had the same opportunity as US citizens to benefit from programs designed to divert drug offenders from prison toward treatment.

“The passage of the bills by the California legislature demonstrates that while Congress does nothing to reform harsh immigration laws, California has the potential to be a leader in keeping families together,” said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While Governor Brown took a positive step by signing one bill, he also missed an opportunity to fully promote drug rehabilitation and to protect immigrant families.”

Many policymakers at the state and federal level have embraced drug policy reform, but few have recognized how these reforms often exclude immigrants. Although it is disappointing the governor did not sign both bills, California and other states should continue to fight for drug reform that includes all its residents.

Grace Meng

Senior Researcher, US Program

Under California law, participants who successfully complete drug diversion under a program known as Deferred Entry of Judgment earn a dismissal of charges and a clean record. But because they are required to plead guilty before starting the program, permanent residents (“green card” holders) and unauthorized immigrants alike are still considered to have a conviction that can trigger deportation and mandatory detention under federal law. The two bills would have helped immigrants who successfully completed the program to avoid a conviction under federal law.

Both bills passed the California state legislature in September. AB 1351, vetoed by Brown, would have amended the Deferred Entry of Judgment program so that the defendant would enter a not guilty plea before starting a drug rehabilitation program and thus avoid a conviction under US immigration law. Brown’s statement accompanying his veto expressed concern that the bill removed an incentive to stay in treatment, as the guilty plea would result in an entering of a judgment of guilt if the defendant failed to complete the program.

However, AB 1351 did not remove the threat of continued prosecution for those who fail to stay in treatment, and would have created an additional incentive to stay in treatment for non-citizens – the chance to avoid deportation. As a result, non-citizens who plead guilty to get into diversion programs are immediately deemed to have a drug conviction that can lead to mandatory detention and deportation.

AB 1352, which was signed into law, will allow individuals who already successfully completed the program to withdraw their guilty pleas if they face the denial or loss of employment or other benefit, including the ability to remain in the US, because of their prior guilty pleas. This bill does make an important change in allowing immigrants who complete the program to clear their records, albeit over a year after their initial guilty plea, thus giving them a better chance to remain in the US.

Many people the US government targets for deportation for drug offenses are green card holders or other immigrants with longstanding ties to the US. Deportations of non-citizens for drug possession have increased. According to data obtained by Human Rights Watch from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, deportations of non-citizens whose most serious conviction was for drug possession increased 43 percent from 2007 to 2012.

“Many policymakers at the state and federal level have embraced drug policy reform, but few have recognized how these reforms often exclude immigrants,” Meng said. “Although it is disappointing the governor did not sign both bills, California and other states should continue to fight for drug reform that includes all its residents.”