As marijuana goes legal in Illinois, immigrants urged not to use pot or work in new industry

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By Elvia Malagón Chicago Tribune (TNS)

CHICAGO — With much of Illinois anticipating the state’s legalization of marijuana in January, activists are urging immigrants not to use or buy cannabis or work in the new industry, as it could lead to drastic measures like deportation.

Immigration attorneys and advocate groups gathered Wednesday in Chicago’s Loop to get word out that any noncitizen — including legal residents — could be adversely affected by admitting to federal immigration agents that they’ve used marijuana or work in the industry. One advocate held a sign stating, “Know your rights before January 1st.”

Starting Jan. 1, marijuana will be legal to purchase in Illinois for those 21 and older. But marijuana remains illegal under federal law, meaning even working at a local dispensary could be viewed by federal agents as a form of drug trafficking, advocates say.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know about these consequences,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of PASO West Suburban Action Project, a social justice organization, underscoring that the warning applies to green card holders and others who have legal status to be in the U.S. “ … Just admitting use makes you a potential target for deportation. So you don’t have to have a criminal arrest or conviction, you just have to admit to use.”

Ruiz-Velasco said immigrants living in mixed-status households, meaning some family members are U.S. citizens while others aren’t, should be cautious of working in the newly legalized industry. Having a family member working in the cannabis industry, even if that person is a citizen, could have an effect on the immigration status of a noncitizen in the same household, she said.

As states have started to legalize marijuana, immigration attorneys have been grappling with how using it or working in the industry is affecting their clients, said Kathleen Vannucci, an attorney who is also part of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Vannucci said the association has heard of cases in which immigrants seeking citizenship in states where marijuana is legal have been denied naturalization because they’ve worked in the industry. An application for naturalization asks about the person’s employment and asks if he or she has used drugs.

In April, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued policy guidance around marijuana, saying possessing it was still a federal violation of a controlled substance.

“The policy guidance also clarifies that an applicant (for citizenship) who is involved in certain marijuana-related activities may lack good moral character if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity has been decriminalized under applicable state laws,” the agency wrote on its website.

Vannucci said immigrants traveling out of the country should also be cautious, because federal agents at the border or in airports could inspect someone’s phone to look for any evidence of marijuana use.

And while immigration is dealt with on the federal level, Ruiz-Velasco said advocates are working with state lawmakers to see what can be done to inform immigrant communities about the possible consequences.

“I think that this is a complicated area of law as we have explained,” Ruiz-Velasco said. “I do think that there wasn’t enough information out there (when the legalization bill was being considered in Illinois). But we are trying to work with legislatures now and the government to try to make sure there is something that can be done to reduce the harm that will come.”

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