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Immigration is one of the most volatile issues in this election season. President Obama said he wants to prioritize the deportation of immigrants with criminal records - felons, not families, he said two years ago.
But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, some immigrant felons may have a strong case for remaining in the United States.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Meet 63-year-old Maria Sanchez. She's a widow, a grandmother of three and a legal permanent resident who has lived and worked in Sonoma County, Calif. for more than 40 years.
MARIA SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
GONZALES: "I work in a seafood market, filleting and packing fish, salmon, all kinds of fish," she says. Sitting in her suburban home, Sanchez remembers how close she came to being deported. Four years ago, she was returning from a vacation in Mexico as she had several times before without a problem.
But this time, Sanchez was detained at the Oakland Airport and questioned for several hours by immigration officials.
SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
GONZALES: "They treated me like I was a criminal, and all I've ever done is work," says Sanchez. The authorities had found a 14-year-old drug conviction on her record. According to court documents, in 1998, Sanchez had pleaded guilty to one charge of cultivation of marijuana. She says she had grown four small plants and soaked the cannabis in rubbing alcohol as a tincture for her arthritis.
Sanchez was sentenced to four months house arrest, three years of probation and a fine. Sanchez thought the case was over, but she was slated for deportation because her conviction qualified as an aggravated felony. It's a broad category that can cover the activities of a drug cartel leader to someone growing marijuana for personal use.
According to government data released to Human Rights Watch, between 2007 and 2012, the government deported over 34,000 noncitizens for marijuana possession. But the data don't break down how many were here illegally or how many were legal residents like Sanchez.
JESSICA VAUGHAN: I don't feel that the law itself is inherently injust (ph).
GONZALES: Jessica Vaughan is a director of policy studies for the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank favoring immigration limits. She says she can't think of a reason why someone holding a green card should escape the consequences of their actions.
VAUGHAN: Anyone who is granted permanent residency is able to have that privilege with the condition that they are not going to commit crimes or otherwise be causing problems in the United States, and the law provides for deportation if the crimes are of a certain severity.
ROSE CAHN: Let's just be absolutely clear, we're not talking about people with murder convictions on their records.
GONZALES: Rose Cahn is an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. She runs a program matching immigrants like Sanchez with pro bono lawyers who negotiate with prosecutors to get the original conviction erased on the basis of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling.
CAHN: There is a right to know the immigration consequences of a conviction before you enter into a plea agreement. And if the defense counsel has not told the defendant about the looming immigration consequences, then that conviction is legally invalid.
GONZALES: And if the conviction is invalid, it can be vacated or erased. So if there is no conviction, there's no deportation. Cahn's program has 50 cases pending. Most involve immigrants facing deportation because in the 1990s, the government expanded the definition of aggravated felony to include low-level drug offenses and the immigrants face removal even though they had already paid a penalty, such as a jail sentence or probation, in some cases more than a decade ago.
Cahn's team has never lost a case. As a result, Maria Sanchez just learned a few weeks ago that her ordeal is over. She won't be separated from her family. But as she tells her story, she still wrings her nervous hands.
SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
GONZALES: "I never would have planted the marijuana," she says, "if I would have known that this was going to happen." Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Sonoma County, Calif.
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