THE BLOG

Mandatory Minimums: Unjust for Immigrants Too

Aug 19, 2013 | Updated Oct 19, 2013

The nation's leading law enforcement agency has finally acknowledged that mandatory minimum sentences are not only unnecessary, but actually harm and undermine basic democratic principles of the American justice system. This signifies the beginning of a broad consensus that a "tough on crime" approach has failed. The proposed "Smart on Crime" reforms instead calls for modernizing the criminal justice system by rethinking the country's reliance on mass imprisonment, which has led to the highest rate of incarceration in U.S. history and cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The reforms are meant to ensure fairer enforcement of the law and avoid excessive and draconian sentences in drug cases.

Our current immigration deportation laws similarly impose mandatory minimum sentences for thousands of immigrants convicted of "aggravated felonies" -- a category so broad as to encompass crimes that are neither aggravated nor felonies. These mandatory minimum sentences under immigration law, however, do not result in jail sentences, but rather permanent exile from the U.S., for even long term lawful permanent residents and refugees, without any consideration of the individual circumstances of their cases. Because our country's broken immigration system has become increasingly entangled with the criminal justice system, it has fueled reliance on these harsh sentences that are disproportionate to the crimes committed. As Congress considers an overhaul of our immigration laws, it should similarly rethink the current mandatory deportation policies that have separated millions of families and cost an unprecedented use of federal taxpayer dollars.

Lundy Khoy's story illustrates the injustice of mandatory minimum sentences in the immigration system. Lundy was born in a Thai refugee camp after her parents fled the genocide in Cambodia. When she was one year old, she and her family came to the U.S. as refugees and were granted legal permanent residence. In 2000, when Lundy was 19 and in college, she was stopped by a police officer and asked if she had any drugs. She truthfully told the officer that she had tabs of ecstasy and was arrested for possession with intent to distribute. On the advice of her lawyer, she pled guilty.

Lundy served three months and was released for good behavior. She got a job and went back to school. She successfully completed her four years of probation. However, she was turned over to immigration authorities by the probation department at a regular check-in. She was then taken into immigration detention where she was imprisoned for almost nine months. Although she is now working to complete her bachelor's degree, works full-time as a college enrollment counsel, and volunteers for local charities, because she has an "aggravated felony" under immigration laws, the federal government is recommending her immediate and automatic deportation to a country she has never seen. She has no family members in Cambodia; they all live in the U.S.

Attorney General Holder's directive recognizes the fact that high rates of incarceration and harsh "mandatory minimum" policies have not only created unsustainable rates of incarceration in this country, but that they are also wasteful and ineffective, exacerbate poverty and insecurity for families and weaken communities. Noting that the current criminal justice system automatically imposes excessive sentences that are disproportionate to the crimes committed, Attorney General Holder has recommended that judges should have more discretion to consider individual circumstances of cases. His proposals demand that judges no longer be bound to enforce a set of irrational sentencing standards that undermine fundamental American principles of fairness and justice.

Under current immigration laws, judges often have no power to stop mandatory deportations and must automatically rubberstamp their exile from the U.S. without considering their individual circumstances. On any given day in the immigration system, thousands of undocumented immigrants as well as lawful permanent residents with longstanding family and community ties are locked up in immigration jails and ultimately deported because of old or minor crimes, including drug offenses, for which they already served time in the criminal justice system. They are men and women who have families with U.S. citizen children. They are refugees, veterans and the elderly, victims, and individuals with serious medical and mental health conditions.

Today's immigration reform efforts provide an opportunity to heed the lessons learned from the criminal justice system to reverse and halt the expansion of the immigration consequences of criminal convictions and mandatory minimum sentences that funnel hundreds of thousands of immigrants like Lundy through the detention and deportation system each year.