DENVER, CO – An obscure "morality clause" used by federal immigration officials is crushing the dreams of immigrants who work in Colorado’s legal marijuana industry by denying their their applications to become naturalized U.S. citizens, the City of Denver said.
Legal immigrants in Denver are facing "renewed hostility" from the feds a statement from Mayor Michael B. Hancock and Denver Excise and Licenses Executive Director Ashley Kilroy said.
On Wednesday, city officials met with two Denver immigrants who were told by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that they were ineligible for naturalization strictly because of their "past or current employment in the cannabis industry," the city said in a press release. The immigrants – one from El Salvador, the other from Lithuania – have each been permanent residents in the U.S. for more than 20 years.
"They have both graduated from Colorado schools, paid their taxes and consider Colorado their home," the city said.
City Attorney Kristin M. Bronson released a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, sent Wednesday condemning the Trump administration’s "latest attack on immigrants." the city is seeking guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure "consistent implementation and enforcement of state marijuana laws" in more than 30 U.S. states, the letter said.
"Denver understands the need for federal laws and regulations regarding citizenship and immigration, but we are seeing the heartbreaking effects that those federal laws and regulations are having on our residents," Mayor Hancock said in a statement. "However, under current federal policy, lawful, permanent residents like the Denver residents I have met with are being denied naturalization and may lose their legal status based on their lawful employment in the cannabis industry."
"It was definitely like getting sucker punched," immigrant Oswaldo Barrientos told Mayor Hancock, as reported in a statement. "I thought I was a shoo-in. I’ve been here long enough. I’ve paid my dues."
Lawyers told Denver staff that immigrations officials are essentially "trapping immigrants into openly admitting to felonious activities under federal law, thus putting them at risk of detention and deportation should they travel abroad and later return to the U.S." the city said.
USCIS Public Affairs Officer Debbie Cannon released a statement from the agency:
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is required to adjudicate cases based on federal law. Individuals who commit federal controlled substance violations face potential immigration consequences under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which applies to all aliens regardless of the state or jurisdiction in which they reside.Marijuana remains illegal under federal law regardless of any actions to decriminalize its possession, use or sale at the state and local level, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not issued any policy exempting the INA’s prohibitions on marijuana violations in locations where marijuana is legal under local laws.
Until the federal laws are changed, Denver staff are warning immigrants who want to seek citizenship of the risk under federal law of working in Colorado’s legal cannabis industry.
On Denver 8 TV, the City will begin airing a PSA originally produced in a collaborative effort by Servicios de La Raza and Marijuana Industry Group (MIG) roughly a year ago that warns noncitizens of the risk of possessing, consuming, selling or growing marijuana under federal law.
"I’m sorry about what’s happening to you," Mayor Hancock told the immigrants in a statement. "This is horrible."
This story has been updated to include a statement from USCIS.