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. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]