Sara entered this country with a green card when she was 10 years old. She never became a citizen. When Sara was 19, she was caught shoplifting. She pleaded guilty to theft and was sentenced to one year, all time suspended. She served no jail time. Twelve years later, Sara has a husband and two young children. She works two jobs. She pays taxes every year. She is happy.
One day, Sara is arrested at work. Another worker wrongfully accused Sara of assault after a disagreement. Sara’s crimmigration nightmare begins.
Sara’s family posts bond for her release. But, instead of being released to her family, Sara is taken into immigration custody. Sara is now at a detention center hours away from her family and her public defender. While Sara’s criminal case is pending, her immigration proceedings begin. Sara is deportable based on her twelve-year-old conviction. Her conviction subjects her to mandatory detention and she must stay in detention through her immigration case. Because she was sentenced to one year instead of 364 days, her conviction also bars her from immigration relief and will permanently ban her from ever reentering this country.
Meanwhile, the State drops all pending criminal charges against Sara. Her immigration proceedings continue.
Sara’s family hires a public defender to vacate the twelve-year-old conviction. Sara’s public defender consults with an immigration specialist. After almost one year, Sara’s conviction is vacated and her public defender works out an “immigration friendly” plea deal. Sara goes home.
Sara’s case illustrates how the criminal justice system drastically affects the immigration status of a non-citizen defendant. Had Sara’s criminal defense attorney consulted with an immigration specialist before advising her to plead to theft with a one year sentence, Sara’s crimmigration nightmare might have been avoided altogether.
The Baltimore Deportation Defense Project within the Office of the Public Defender works to connect public defenders to an immigration specialist in hopes of helping non-citizen defendants avoid the draconian, double punishment of deportation. As Sara’s case reveals, sometimes the difference of 24 hours is all that matters. The reality is that Sara was lucky. Many mothers have been separated from their families on the basis of minor offenses they committed many years ago.