Howard Bailey was a 22-year-old Navy veteran and legal permanent resident when he pleaded guilty to a marijuana possession charge in the mid-1990s.
More than a decade, two kids and a house later, the Virginia resident found himself deported to his native Jamaica over the conviction, following two years in immigration detention.
His conviction has since been pardoned by former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and states across the country have moved to decriminalize, and even legalize, recreational marijuana.
But the immigration system has yet to catch up: Bailey remains in Jamaica, hoping for a chance to return to the United States, where his mother, siblings and two American children, now young adults, still reside.
“It’s a continuing fight,” Bailey said in a phone interview, discussing his battle to return to the U.S. “Why is someone holding the key and refusing to let their sons and their daughters in? I’m not a stranger.”
On Wednesday, the National Immigrant Justice Center released a white paper calling on the administration to open an independent office within the Department of Homeland Security dedicated to adjudicating applications from people like Bailey, already deported but hoping to return to the United States.
According to the advocates, establishing a centralized office would allow those requests to be decided faster and more consistently while also alleviating pressure from the immigration court system, which is currently bogged down by a backlog of 1.3 million cases.
“There’s a misconception that somehow setting up a process like this is opening the floodgates, when in reality the process we’ve proposed not only streamlines the process, but it offers recommendations for how to expedite certain categories of folks for review,” said Nayna Gupta, NIJC’s associate director of policy.
While the Biden administration works to implement its own vision for the U.S. immigration system and balance competing political interests, immigrant advocates hope the administration won’t forget people who have already been through the system and lost.
Bailey’s case isn’t unique. More than 34,000 immigrants deported between 2007 and 2012 had a marijuana possession offense as their most serious criminal conviction, according to Human Rights Watch. Others still have had the crimes that launched their deportations pardoned and expunged.
Deported immigrants like Bailey, who had legal status prior to being removed and whose convictions were pardoned or expunged — or whose offenses wouldn’t be illegal today — could be candidates for a faster review, Gupta explained.
Other candidates for the process could include people who were deported despite being eligible for a visa. It also could help those deported under the Trump administration but who could have qualified to enroll in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives deportation relief to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, had that administration not halted new enrollments.
Gupta said NIJC plans to deliver the proposal to the White House with a request to discuss it with officials and also plans to advocate for the idea on Capitol Hill, where the organization will encourage lawmakers to turn up the pressure on the administration to act. Gupta said she hopes to gain the support of congressional lawmakers such as Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who has made criminal justice one of his core issues.
Advocates also want to continue “building the bridge” between criminal justice and the immigration system, which often intersect when Black and brown immigrants living in heavily policed communities face steep immigration consequences, Gupta said.
“We can talk about this in terms of politics, but what we’re talking about is an issue of race. Not doing this is not honoring a promise to reckon with racial injustice,” Gupta said.
Issues raised by potentially erroneous deportations have already gained some traction on the Hill, which is currently considering landmark criminal justice legislation on policing.
Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been fighting to reverse the deportation of one of his own constituents, Paul Pierrilus, who was deported to Haiti earlier this year over the congressman’s protests.
Pierrilus, a financial consultant who had lived in the U.S. since he was 5, was born in St. Martin, a Caribbean island that does not confer birthright citizenship. He had never been to Haiti when he was deported there, Jones said.
Jones brought Pierrilus’ sister, Neomie Pierrilus, as his virtual guest to President Joe Biden’s joint address to Congress on Wednesday night.
Jones said he would be in “full support” of establishing an office to consider claims of wrongful deportations, pointing to the “track record” of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency within DHS that detains and deports immigrants within the country.
“It is an agency that cannot be trusted to engage in a humane way with our undocumented population here in the United States of America,” he said.
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, also signaled support for establishing a pathway for deported immigrants to return to the U.S.
The group “fully supports restoring justice and humanity to our immigration system and is willing to work with the Biden Administration to remedy unjust deportations, including families who were separated at the border under the previous administration,” he said in a statement.
Bailey struggled to find the words to express how it would feel to return to the U.S., now more than eight years after he was deported in 2012. He said he would hope to rebuild his relationships with his children, who were 11 and 14 when he was arrested.
“It doesn’t matter how old you get, you still need your parents,” he said.
Bailey served in the U.S. Navy for four years, including time abroad in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. He said he still loves the United States despite his experience with the immigration system.
“Me being away from the U.S. right now, I have a greater love because I know what I’m missing,” he said.