In the end, Linden Corrica lost his freedom and his life in New York over $10 worth of marijuana.
Before his arrest, he had a good life, an apartment in Bushwick that he shared with his wife, Carol McDonald, and their daughter, Natasha, 7. Together, the couple had risen from poverty in their native Guyana to come to New York a decade ago.
But 18 months ago, Corrica, a Rastafarian, was picked up with two nickel bags of pot in his pocket. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of marijuana sale, in return for a sentence of 20 days in jail.
He spent eight days there in September 2003, his wife said. "Eight days and he's back with us - it seemed a fair price to pay," said McDonald, 44, a U.S. citizen.
But Corrica has been barred from returning to his home and his family - a penalty much worse than he or his wife ever imagined possible.
Upon completing his sentence on Rikers Island, Corrica was sent to an immigration detention facility in northern New Jersey, then to a federal facility in Oakdale, La. He has remained a detainee tagged for mandatory deportation ever since.
On Wednesday, his wife learned his appeal was denied by the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Va.
He Had Past Guilty Pleas
Corrica, 43, had submitted a psychiatrist's evaluation of his daughter detailing her emotional problems since his detention, an explanation of his wife's struggles to make ends meet, and a religious rather than a recreational basis for his marijuana use.
In the Rastafari spiritual movement throughout the Caribbean and other parts of the world, some members use marijuana for sacramental purposes, similar to using wine in Communion, noted a letter in his file from Horace Campbell, a professor of African-American studies and political science at Syracuse University.
But the Board of Immigration Appeals was aware that Corrica had pleaded guilty several times previously to marijuana-related charges, dating back to 1998. Until his latest brush with the law, he was not sentenced to Rikers Island, where immigration officers have an office.
It appears that Corrica's only hope now for release, a slim one, is his appeal on constitutional grounds to a New York federal court.
Yet legal experts say the federal immigration service's 18-month detention of Corrica, a legal resident who had a green card, underscores a growing trend.
Since 1996, they say, federal immigration law has regarded low-level crimes - - sometimes even turnstile-jumping - committed by immigrants as grounds to deport. And since Sept. 11, 2001, federal authorities have made it their mission to identify offenders in jails and remove them to places like Oakdale, where they are typically held for long stretches and then deported. This strategy is one of the factors fueling the elevated level of deportations nationwide, the experts said.
Lawyer: Immigrants Targeted
"What I see a lot from my New York City cases is that law enforcement in New York focuses more now, it seems to me, on the immigrant community and their workplaces, like the construction sites," said Tracy Davenport, Corrica's attorney, who represents some of the hundreds of New York detainees sent to Oakdale, La.
The former court-appointed attorney who represented Corrica in the marijuana case could not be reached.
"A lot of my guys have convictions for criminal sale of marijuana: You have an undercover cop hanging out at a construction work site, and they'll ask the guy, 'Can I buy a joint for $5?' The guy needs money, so he says, 'Give me $5 and I'll get you what you want.' That's criminal sale of marijuana under New York criminal law, and that's drug trafficking and a felony under immigration law. Forget it, they're gone," Davenport said.
Often an immigrant's only chance is to plead not guilty and go to trial. But in New York, unlike many other states, defendants do not know that. So they may plead to a reduced charge, often on the advice of their attorney, and then get much more than they bargained for.
"I'm not condoning crime, but to deport someone for a misdemeanor offense to which he or she has pleaded guilty on the advice of counsel just strikes me as hypocrisy," said Bryan Lonegan, a criminal defense lawyer with the Legal Aid Society's Immigration Law Unit.
'No Incentive ... To Be Clear'
According to Marianne Yang, director of the Immigrant Defense Project of the New York Defenders Association, New York is not among the nearly two dozen states that have passed laws since 1996 allowing immigrant defendants to take back their felony or misdemeanor pleas when a judge didn't advise them on how it would affect their immigrant status.
"There's no incentive for the courts to be clear," Yang said. "As a result, many people in New York have no idea and are completely surprised that even though they only received, say, a sentence of community service, they ended up in detention facing mandatory deportation."
On top of that, many court-appointed lawyers are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of immigration law, said Kerry Bretz, a Manhattan former trial attorney for the federal immigration service who now represents criminal defendants.
With few options in a legal system that often leaves them confused and without full information, Davenport summed it up by saying simply: "Immigrants in New York should not plead guilty to anything."
Total involuntary deportations from the United States:
*Congress tightened immigration restrictions.
Source - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
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