Mickel Mesa, a 28-year-old legal permanent resident of the United States, had not seen his family in the Dominican Republic for many years. So, in December 2013, he and his sister flew to the Caribbean nation. He said it was a week of “great food and fun” with people he had not seen since he was a teenager.
He returned to the United States on December 29th. When he arrived at the airport in New Jersey, he did what all so-called “green card” holders must do. He asked the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, or CBP, for permission to re-enter the United States.
He showed the officers his green card and passport. But he was not permitted to enter. The officers arrested him instead.
In 2006, Mesa pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. That is a serious crime in New Jersey. He was sentenced to community service and five years of supervised freedom, called probation. He completed both long before he traveled to the Dominican Republic.
But federal officers arrested him anyway. In 1996, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act. The law expanded the kinds of crimes for which legal immigrants could be expelled.
Paromita Shah is the associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. She said many people who have green cards do not know that the CBP can punish them even after they have served their sentence.
She said, in many cases, American laws are used to expel green card holders for actions that happened years earlier.
Mesa was held in a jail in New Jersey for about a year. In January, 2015 he was sent back to the Dominican Republic, a place he had not lived in since he was a young boy.
He said he was never told in 2006 that he could be deported after completing his sentence.
Mesa had moved to the United States with his family when he was eight years old. His parents wanted a better life for him and his sister, Genesis.
“I never asked to be taken [to the U.S.]; I never knew. We just picked up and left. But my parents were ignorant. Until this day, my mother hasn’t become a citizen,” he said.
Mesa said he thought if he had his green card he could not be expelled. “All I knew was I had a permanent resident card. I was living my life. I was legal,” he said.
He said people with green cards think they are free of expulsion threats.
Brittany Young is an immigration lawyer at Catholic Charities in West Virginia. She said that is a mistaken belief held by many green card holders.
“People make bad choices,” she said. “They don’t really quite understand the severity of their actions. That is why honestly I encourage people to become U.S. citizens as soon as they can.”
The American Immigration Council says 10 percent of people sent back to their countries every year are legal permanent residents. The council says 68 percent of that group is deported because they have committed minor or nonviolent crimes.
After Mesa was arrested at the airport, his sister wrote to the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Department of Homeland Security. She asked them to reopen her brother’s case.
She told them about a decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey that cancelled the guilty finding against Mesa in the criminal charge.
Court documents show that immigration officials have refused to reopen the case. They say Mesa’s family took too long to make their request. And, they note, Mesa was also found guilty of lower-level crimes involving possession of marijuana. His sister said Mesa used marijuana, but did not sell it.
Shah, from the National Lawyers Guild, said the 1996 law created a system that causes great pain for families.
“We don’t have a system with checks and balances," she said. "We don’t have a system with due process. If we really want to fix and help the families who were being hurt, we need to start by appealing -- or at the very least amending -- the 1996 laws."
Genesis said her brother is not a criminal.
“He was just stupid,” she said. “I’ve been trying to fight his case because we lived in the United States for 20 years. We were raised in New Jersey. He spent his whole young child, adolescence and adult life in New Jersey.”
Genesis says their father suffers from diabetes. His leg was removed as a result and he now has other health problems. She said her brother was the only person who cared for him.
Mesa has been in the Dominican Republic for more than a year. He is learning about life there, but it was not easy at first.
Mesa said the only work he has found has been providing customer service on the telephone.
“Right now, where I’m working at I’m making less than $3 an hour working for American companies,” he said. “I would like to go back. I feel like it was unfair what was done to me -- not just me, many people.”
Mesa said the family does not have the money to pay a lawyer to help with his case. He said his sister is the only person he can depend on.
“We’ve done the best we can on our own,” he said.
Experts say the family could challenge the immigration agency’s decision in the federal courts of appeal. Genesis said she will continue to fight to bring her brother back to the United States.
I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.
Words in This Story
resident – n. someone who lives in a particular place
green card – n. a document that shows a person from a foreign country may legally live and work in the U.S.
intent to distribute – expression a legal term that expresses a prosecutor’s belief that because a person had a large quantity of an illegal product -- such as a drug -- the person was planning to sell it rather than use it themselves
ignorant – adj. lacking knowledge or information
commit – v. to do (something that is illegal or harmful)
checks and balances – expression a system in which the different parts of an organization (such as a government) have powers that affect and control the other parts so that no part can become too powerful
due process – n. (a US legal expression) the official and proper way of doing things in a legal case; the rule that a legal case must be done in a way that protects the rights of all the people involved
adolescence – n. the period of life when a child develops into an adult
challenge – v. to say or show that (something) may not be true, correct or legal