On the surface, you may not think a misdemeanor crime is that serious. For many Texas misdemeanor offenses, the court will only impose a fine without jail time. But if you are not a citizen of the United States–i.e., you are a permanent resident, visa holder, or undocumented immigrant–a misdemeanor conviction may lead to your deportation.
Under federal law, an immigrant is considered deportable if he or she is convicted of a “crime of moral turpitude” within five years of admission to the United States. There is no exact definition of “moral turpitude,” but as a general rule it includes most aggravated felonies. But thousands of individuals have also been deported following convictions for misdemeanor drug possession under state law.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2015 that the United States deported “34,337 people whose most serious conviction was marijuana possession.” And while the Obama administration indicated such deportations would no longer be an “enforcement priority,” the Trump administration has given contrary signals. Last year, then-Secretary of Homeland Security (and current White House chief of staff) John Kelly said marijuana was a “dangerous gateway drug,” and that federal immigration authorities would continue to rely upon misdemeanor possession convictions “as essential elements as they build their deportation removal apprehension packages for targeted operations against illegal aliens living in the United States.”
Court Does Not Believe Defendant Who Said He Didn’t Know Guilty Plea Would Affect Immigration Status
Note that any kind of misdemeanor drug conviction is deportable. The fact you agreed to plead guilty may earn you leniency when it comes to your criminal sentence under Texas law, but not when it comes to dealing with immigration authorities. This is why it is important to be upfront with your Houston criminal defense lawyer about your immigration status before you enter into plea negotiations.
Here is a recent cautionary tale on this point. A Jamaican national legally entered the United States in 2008. In 2003, he pleaded guilty in Harris County Criminal Court to possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, which is a Class B misdemeanor under Texas law. As part of the plea agreement, the Court imposed a 25-day jail sentence.
Three years later, the defendant asked for a judicial order tossing out his earlier guilty plea on the grounds that his attorney never advised him the misdemeanor conviction would subject him to possible deportation. But the attorney told the court that his client never advised him of his immigration status. Both the attorney and the trial judge said they asked the defendant if he was a United States citizen. The defendant indicated he was, which is why the attorney said he never advised his client of any potential deportation risks.
The Texas 14th District Court of Appeals, upholding a trial court’s earlier decision, said the defendant was out of luck. The trial court chose to believe the attorney’s testimony over that of the defendant, and the appeals court said that was not an abuse of judicial discretion under the circumstances.
Be Honest, But Stand Up for Your Rights in Galveston
You should always be honest without your lawyer, especially with something as critical to your future as your immigration status. But you also have the right to contest any misdemeanor charges that might put that future in jeopardy. If you have been accused of any kind of misdemeanor crime and need advice from a skilled Houston or League City criminal defense attorney, call the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today at (713) 802-1631.