In June of 1999, Astrid Morataya, then a lawful permanent resident, pled guilty to a minor drug distribution offense. The circumstances were questionable – Astrid consistently denies she was involved with drugs and no drugs were ever recovered on her. The guilty plea, in the aftermath of the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which went into effect 20 years ago today on September 30, 1996, would have a devastating effect on Astrid’s life.
Fourteen years later, in May of 2013, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents surrounded Astrid’s home and arrested her in front of her three children and newborn grandchild. What followed next was a harrowing journey in immigration detention centers for the next two and a half years, during which time Astrid fought to remain in the United States, where she had lived since she was seven or eight years old, with her children.
Because Astrid plead guilty to a drug offense in 1997, the immigration judge presiding over her case was not permitted to even consider whether Astrid deserved a second chance to remain in the United States. This is just one of the many harsh consequences of IIRIRA’s provisions. It did not matter that Astrid had compelling reasons for why she should stay in the United States, including that she was successfully raising three U.S. citizen children as single mother, had a steady work history, and no further convictions.
Even though she did not pose a flight risk or any danger to the community, Astrid was subject to detention without bond because of her 14-year old conviction—another punitive consequence of IIRIRA. Astrid stood to become a victim of one of IIRIRA’s most draconian features, inspired in many ways by the infamous “war on drugs:” any drug conviction, other than mere possession of marijuana under 30 grams, results in permanent banishment from the United States. If Astrid were to be deported, there is no legal way for her to return to the United States. Hundreds, if not thousands, of noncitizens have since been deported, ripped apart from their families and homes, because of the unnecessarily harsh consequences of drug convictions.
Today, on the 20th anniversary of IIRIRA, Astrid bravely tells her story, hoping that in doing so, we can better understand the human stories behind misleading stereotypes and statistics. Astrid still has a chance to remain in the United States with her children, but only because she qualifies for another form of protection for victims of serious crimes called a U Visa. Astrid suffered horrific domestic violence and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution in the case against her victimizer, a U.S. citizen who threatened her with deportation if she went to the authorities.
As Astrid so aptly puts it, it should not take extreme circumstances to warrant a second opportunity in life. Slowly, our nation is waking up to the realization that the “war on drugs” and legislation to codify it has resulted in a failed policy with devastating, unduly punitive consequences on communities of color. We must #Fix96—abolish IIRIRA and similar laws that criminalize, target, and destroy families (particularly immigrant families and communities of color) en masse—and enact more humane laws, for the sake of Astrid and the thousands of others like her. The very fabric of our society depends on it.
Claudia Valenzuela is the detention project director at the National Immigrant Justice Center.