Utah's Supreme Court delivers a victory for immigrant rights

Tens of thousands are deported each year for accepting plea deals. Now they will have a new way to fight back.

 

One night in April, 2010, Sergio Meza, 18, returned to his car after long-boarding with a group of friends on a canyon road south of Salt Lake City. He got in his car, a beat-up 1992 Acura, and began driving home, smoke pouring out of the exhaust pipe. A policeman pulled him over. Meza panicked a little. He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, but he was undocumented — his parents had brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was eight years old. Growing up, he had been taught not to draw attention to himself. But over the years, he had come to think of himself as an American and the fear lessened. 

The officer told Meza to step out of the car and asked him if he had any drugs on him. Meza pulled out two pipes from his pocket, which held some residual marijuana. The policeman charged Meza with possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, both misdemeanors. Meza would have to appear in court later that month.

On the advice of his lawyer, Meza accepted a deal offered to low-level offenders called a plea in abeyance, which meant the judge would dismiss the charges against him if Meza agreed to pay a $1,000 fine and go to a drug treatment class. He did everything he was told and thought the unfortunate incident was behind him. Later that spring, Meza graduated high school and married his girlfriend Chelsea, a U.S. citizen. Four years ago they had saved enough money for Meza’s green card application, but when his new immigration lawyer learned of the plea deal, he broke the news: Even though the state of Utah had never formally charged Meza, the incident would still come up when the feds looked through his record in the green card process. According to U.S. immigration laws, Meza’s plea deal was tantamount to a conviction, making him ineligible for a green card. And without a path to citizenship that green cards provide, Meza was at risk of being deported.

Meza’s lawyer asked a district court judge to formally withdraw the plea deal on the grounds that Meza’s criminal defense lawyer gave him bad advice. But the judge declined, noting that federal immigration laws were outside his territory. Meza’s only option was to go through the standard appeal process, but there was a snag: According to the law, a person can only appeal a conviction if he or she was sentenced. And thanks to the plea deal, Meza had never been sentenced. So Meza and his lawyer appealed the case to the Utah Supreme Court. In September, the Court ruled that Meza can file a motion to withdraw from the 2010 plea deal that stood in the way of his green card application. The decision, say legal experts, is setting a precedent that could help protect the constitutional rights of immigrants across the country. If Meza wins, it could open the door for other immigrants to erase plea deals for minor incidents that federal officials can interpret as convictions.

“These kids make a small mistake and the state says they’re forgiven — but not really,” says Aaron Tarin, Meza’s lawyer with the Utah-based Immigrant Defenders Law Group. He added that because so few criminal defense lawyers are trained in immigration law, they often counsel their clients to accept plea bargains without properly warning them of the deportation risks. In his six years practicing immigration law, Tarin has identified hundreds of such cases.

Utah isn’t the only state in which immigrants — both undocumented and lawful permanent residents — get nailed on plea deals. It’s a common problem in every state, says Kevin Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Davis who specializes in immigration and civil rights. In theory, plea deals like the one Meza accepted are one of the ways judges have tried to soften the disproportionately harsh laws and policies relating to drug offenses. But for immigrants, the deals that were supposed to give them a second chance in fact do the opposite.

In September, the Utah Supreme Court issued an opinion that will help remedy a legal complication that leaves thousands of immigrants at risk of deportation.
Andrew Smith/Flickr

Meza’s story echoes the findings released in a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch, which documents how the United States regularly deports legal residents and undocumented immigrants with strong ties to the U.S. for drug offenses, often through complicated legal snafus like plea deals. From 2007 to 2012, the report found, deportations after convictions for drug possession in particular increased 43 percent. Often, those offenses are decades old or so minor they resulted in little or no prison time. 

Almost any drug conviction will get you deported, says Johnson, noting that the increase began with a series of laws passed by Bill Clinton in 1996, designed to crack down on both legal and undocumented immigrants. The new laws expanded the list of crimes eligible for deportation (labeled “aggravated felonies”) to include even minor offenses like possessing small amounts of drugs.

Tarin says that the Supreme Court’s decision allowing Meza to withdraw his plea deal was a way of reasserting its authority over Utah’s ultra-conservative legislature, at a time when state lawmakers have been actively creating laws that make it easier for immigrants to get deported. Last year, for instance, Utah passed a law patterned after one created in Arizona that requires police to question people about their immigration status if they suspect the person is in the country illegally. But the Utah Court’s decision is rippling outwards. Already, Tarin has received calls from immigration lawyers in Utah and other states asking how they can apply Meza’s case to clients in similar situations.

Meza has put his life on hold over the last four years that he has been fighting his case. He thought about going back to school for physical therapy, but knowing he could be deported any day, he decided against it. Instead, he’s worked in construction, gaining skills he hoped would keep him employed if he ever found himself back in Mexico.

In a few weeks, Tarin will file a motion to withdraw Meza’s plea deal, arguing that it was given on the basis of poor legal advice and therefore invalid. With his green card application now on the horizon, Meza is starting to think about the future again. “Now,” he says, “I have to figure out what to do.”

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.