Pot could leave black mark on immigration cases

Hoping to become a citizen? Immigration authorities warn they take a dim view of cannabis. (Photo illustration by Chuck Grimmett/Creative Commons)

Pakalolo Oceanside, a cannabis shop in downtown Anchorage, looks like a pleasant place to work. It’s clean. It happens to be right across the street from Anchorage Police headquarters. And Manager Mark Hoffman seems a decent guy.

“Oh absolutely. Yeah, I don’t question my moral character because I work in the cannabis industry at all,” Hoffman said.

But if you’re an immigrant – maybe you’re a legal resident, with a green card – and you work here or even shop here, it could end your dream of becoming an American citizen.

That’s because applicants who want to naturalize have to prove to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that they have “good moral character.”

A new USCIS guideline says buying or selling marijuana, even at a state-regulated cannabis shop, shows you lack “good moral character.” The April 19 “policy alert” caused a stir among Alaska immigration attorneys and exposes a gulf between federal policy and Alaska values on what constitutes good morals.

“I think it’s fairly ridiculous,” said Anchorage attorney William Brattain, whose law firm is called Alaska Immigration Law Center. “To me it’s an example of where federal law is not keeping pace with the concepts of what’s really going on in society. And the reason that it’s not is purely, 100% political.”

Brattain said the policy seems to add cement to a stumbling block on the path to citizenship, one that he said trips up a lot of his clients. He mentioned one, a woman in her 30s, who Brattain said is hard-working and lives with children and husband, who are American citizens.

She’s a “responsible person who has done it the right way, who has followed the law every step of the way,” Brattain said. “Now (she) finds herself in this political battle on this marijuana issue.”

The problem is, she admitted that she smoked two joints, as a teenager in Mexico. Brattain said the authorities are using it to say she lacks good moral character.

Attorney Bill Brattain calls the naturalization service’s policy on cannabis “fairly ridiculous.” Photo by Liz Ruskin.

“Under what possible theory is that?” Brattain asked. “There are very few teenagers in the United States who have not experimented with marijuana. And to say every teenager, or a substantial number of them, lack good moral character may confirm the view of many conservatives but has no basis in reality.”

Brattain said it seems to him it’s the new immigration officers in Anchorage who tend to ask about marijuana use.

“The old guard people who’ve been around and gone through the marijuana experience in Alaska really don’t give a rip,” he said. “They really understand that it’s not useful, really, for the ultimate question, which is ‘Is this person the kind of person you’d like to join us as a U.S. citizen?'”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined an interview request but sent a statement saying the agency has to decide cases based on federal law, under which marijuana remains illegal.

Anchorage immigration attorney Nicolas Olano points out that federal regulations say judgements about “good moral character” should take into account the standards of the average citizen in the community where the person lives.

“We live in Anchorage, Alaska. It is legal here,” he said. “People enjoy marijuana. They enjoy recreational drug. It’s not a problem. It’s not a moral issue.”

The regulations allow an exception for a single case of simple marijuana possession. If you’ve used pot more than once, denying it might seem like a good option, but federal rules say giving false testimony in an immigration proceeding is also proof you lack “good moral character.”

Olano advises that refugees, green card-holders or anyone here on a work visa that taking a job in the cannabis industry could radically complicate their case for a change in visa status or naturalization.

“I think they should be able to work wherever they want. It’s legal,” Olano said. “But just as a blanket advice? No. Stay away. Absolutely.”

Ultimately, Olano predicts, a federal judge will resolve the conflict between federal policy and local standards on marijuana.

Unless Congress does. U.S. Rep. Don Young chairs what’s called the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

“Congressman Young continues listening to his constituent stakeholders and working on legislation that helps reduce potential conflicts between Federal and state-level cannabis policy,” Young’s spokesman emailed in response to a question about the new policy alert.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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