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Documented Immigrants Who Work in Legal Marijuana Industry Are Being Denied U.S. Citizenship

Credit: BELatina/BrandStar

One day before Saturday’s 4/20, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued guidance on how federal marijuana laws affect the path to citizenship for documented immigrants, and the news is not good. The USCIS has determined that being involved with cannabis in any way can permanently bar someone from pursuing naturalization, even those who have been working in the marijuana industry where medical or recreational bud has been legalized by the state.

This guidance is based on the fact that cannabis is still a controlled substance that is considered illegal at the federal level, suggesting that in breaking this law immigrants “lack good moral character” that is required for U.S. citizenship. The guidance applies to immigrants who are growing, selling, possessing, or using marijuana, whether or not they have been convicted of a marijuana-related crime.

Advocates of cannabis legalization are calling BS on this latest determination by the Trump administration. “I don’t think this is about marijuana at all,” Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance told NBC News. “I think this is about them using the war on drugs to go after migrant community and that’s what they’ve been doing since Day 1.” Collins suggested that this is yet another outlet for the federal government to pursue the deportation of immigrants.

Oswald Barrientos, 30, said he was brought to the U.S. from El Salvador as an infant and was granted a green card when he was 13.
He said he didn’t anticipate any problems with his citizenship application. He is fluent in English and said he has no criminal history, pays taxes and graduated high school. But during an interview in November, the immigration official focused on Barrientos’ job with a state-licensed company that grows marijuana, he said.

Immigration advocates also feel that this is an attempt to target immigrants, rather than a good-faith interpretation of existing law. “If the executive branch is so intent on upholding federal law, you would see the U.S. attorney’s office prosecuting every marijuana business owner, everybody who worked in the industry,” said Aaron Elinoff to the Denver Post earlier in the month. “Instead, they’re merely targeting immigrants.” Elinoff is an immigration lawyer who is representing Oswaldo Barrientos, a documented immigrant who for the past five years has been working as a cultivation manager at The Dab in Denver, Colorado. Barrientos was brought to the U.S. from El Salvador as an infant. He has no criminal record and was inspired to work in the marijuana industry after his mother was diagnosed with cancer, thought of himself as a model citizen. “Then I received a letter from the government saying that ‘I lacked moral character.’ I was shocked.”

Photo Credit ABC News Denver Mayor Michael Hancock listens during a meeting about immigration problems stemming with legal marijuana jobs.

The mayor of Denver, on behalf of Barrientos and another unnamed immigrant from Lithuania, wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr requesting guidance that would adjust the way that the law is being interpreted so that immigrants aren’t risking their citizenship status by working in legal marijuana industries. “I work hard in an industry that offers opportunity and that’s unquestionably legal within the state [of Colorado]. For the government to deny my citizenship application because I’m a bad person is devastating,” Barrientos told CNN.

In the meantime, experts and advocates are advising immigrants to seek employment outside of the cannabis industry. Colorado has begun running PSAs to educate people on the current interpretation of the law. Other states with legal marijuana industries who value their immigrant communities have begun to do the same. Kathy Brady, who works with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, explained to the AP, “Even if you have had a green card for 20 years, you had better not work in any aspect of this industry and you better not use marijuana.”

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