Archive for August 2008

Aggravated Felons May Not Really Be Aggravated Felons

Congress decided in 1996 to label non-citizens who commit certain offenses “aggravated felons”. The offenses they commit are called “aggravated felonies”. Such perpetrators are barred from the United States practically for life, with little possibility of relief. It does not matter if they are married to U.S. citizens, or if they have children who are born and raised here. The law simply devastates such families, forcing them to be either separated or uprooted and moved elsewhere.

The average citizen may very well agree with Congress that those who commit heinous crimes should be uprooted from the United States. And, should their families suffer, that is the responsibility of the wrongdoer, and not of Congress. This may be a feasible conclusion, until one realizes that many of those “aggravated felonies” are either misdemeanors, which are offense that are considered light under our legal system, or felonies with otherwise light sentences.

In effect, Congress had chosen to label such offenses “aggravated felonies”, even though the offense itself under state or federal law sometimes is not even a felony, but a misdemeanor. Hence, a U.S. citizen who commits such offense might not even get a day in jail, whereas the same offense committed by a non-citizen will destroy the non-citizen and his family’s lives.

Why did Congress choose to use such drastic labeling, portraying such aliens in a most negative light? Mislabeling those wrongdoers as “aggravated felonies” might convince the public that those individuals are getting what they deserve. Few politicians will have the courage to speak out in defense of individuals whom our laws label as “aggravated felons”. Therefore, the labeling had shut down debate and have discouraged subsequent lawmakers from correcting this inequity.

One can only guess as to why Congress used the terminology it did. In the last decade or so, it has become fashionable for some policy makers to blame non-citizens for much of society’s failures. Immigrants are by definition a very weak group who cannot vote, and cannot defend themselves effectively in our political system. Stereotyping and scapegoat tactics are traditional tools used, throughout history, by some unscrupulous politicians to blame certain sectors of population for all of society’s problems. Apparently, the policy works. Many lawmakers are openly proud of their tough policies with regards to non-citizens, even if the toughness is nothing short of unnecessary brutality.

Examples of offenses that had been labeled as “aggravated felonies,” but might not be as aggravating under state or criminal federal law include: sale of marijuana, even if it is viewed as a misdemeanor under state law, unauthorized use of vehicle, theft of services, violation of selected services laws, traveling to areas restricted because of national emergency, protective order violations, damaging property, forging of certain documents, burglary of a non-residential structure or vehicle, certain unauthorized trespassing, telephone facilitation offenses, use of a communication device to sell controlled substances, using the telephone or mail to threaten individuals, assaults or offenses where there was an intent to harm, assaults in the second and third degree, stalking, driving under the influence, attempted possession of stolen property, possession of stolen mail, theft involving fraud, commercial bribery, forgery, bribery of a witness, any attempt or conspiracy to commit any of the above offenses, certain firearm violations, violations of domestic violence injunctions, etc.

I am not saying that people who commit the above listed offenses have done no wrong. On the contrary, they deserve to be punished, and they should spend whatever time in jail the criminal justice system imposes. However, when considered for deportation, it would make sense that consideration be given in unusual cases, especially when there are kids, a spouse, or other substantive ties to the U.S., etc. But, currently, a U.S. citizen convicted of those crimes might spend little time in jail, if at all, whereas a comparable non-citizen, in addition to the criminal punishment, is often banished from the U.S. without any consideration as to his family, kids, spouse, and other ties to the U.S. And that appears to be inconsistent with many of the civilized values we are often proud of.

The desire of society to be safe from criminals makes this a very difficult subject to debate, or matter to rectify. Nonetheless, those who have been labeled as “aggravated felons” are after all human beings. Whatever law we apply to them should be guided by our knowledge that many U.S. citizens, who have committed similar mistakes, have paid their debt to society and thereafter, with time, became upstanding citizens. To banish someone from the U.S. forever for an offense that a U.S. citizen would hardly spend any time in jail for, and thereby destroy his ties to his family, appears to be an overreaction by a legislature that has little consideration for issues of compassion, family values, and giving second chances.

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