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Iowa Man Faces Deportation for a Single Gram of Cannabis

October 3, 2017
Luis Alvarez, 19, faces deportation for possessing one gram of cannabis--or a little more than the weight in a typical joint. (Johny87/iStock)
In legal states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada, a single gram of cannabis sells for around $10. But in a prohibition state like Iowa, that same gram comes at a far greater cost—jail, a lost job, even deportation.

Luis Alvarez, 19, grew up in Des Moines. Now he faces deportation for possessing one gram of cannabis.

In Des Moines, Iowa, just an eight-hour drive from the Colorado state line, a single gram of cannabis sits at the heart of a case that could result in a teenager getting deported from the country he entered when he was less than a year old.

Luis Alvarez, now 19, grew up in Des Moines with dreams of being a professional soccer player, and went on to attend East High School.

During a traffic stop about a year ago, police discovered a gram of cannabis in his cousin’s car. As the youngest in the car—Alvarez had just turned 18—he didn’t think the minor offense would affect him the same way as his cousin, who was a U.S. citizen and already in college.

He was mistaken. It was his first offense, so Alvarez received one year on probation for the misdemeanor cannabis possession. But the offense led federal officials with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to incarcerate him and revoke his immigration status. ICE is now moving to deport Alvarez, who has remained in jail for five months, to Mexico, a country he has never known.

All because of a single gram of cannabis.

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A DACA Dreamer

Alvarez was living and working legally in this country as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented individuals to legally live and work in America, so long as they meet certain requirements.  When the Trump administration announced the end of the program last month, the fate of DACA registrants, often called “Dreamers,” has been thrown into question.

Alvarez received probation for the misdemeanor, but has remained behind bars for 5 months because of his immigration status.

Alvarez’s case is about more than the fate of the DACA program, though. Even if DACA were to have been extended by the White House, the minor nature of Alvarez’s offense seems to fit easily within the program’s guidelines. According to Alvarez’s lawyer, Ta-Yu Yang, possession of one gram of cannabis should not trigger the revocation of Dreamer status, regardless of the overall fate of the program.

Under Immigration and Naturalization Act, a person with Alvarez’s immigration status can be deported for a violation of any controlled substance law “other than a single offense involving possession for one’s own use of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

Based on that law, Yang appealed the revocation of Alvarez’s DACA status. The appeal was denied, and now Yang is taking Alvarez’s case to the Board of Immigration Appeals. He’s also appealing the denial of bond, which has kept Alvarez in jail for five months while his case works its way through the system.

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Due to the uncertainty of the DACA program, Yang is looking into other options for Alvarez to avoid deportation to Mexico. The program is still active, so there is no way to tell how DACA recipients would be received if forced to leave the country. Yang is contending that Alvarez and others would be “picked on and targeted” in Mexico. Because of that potential danger, the attorney argues that Alvarez is eligible to seek asylum in the United States.

“I think this is brand new ground,” Yang told Leafly. “It depends on what happens nationally” with DACA, Congress, and the White House. “There may not be a solution, and if there is no solution coming out of Congress, then the fact that we are appealing for asylum is a possible viable option.”

The Morales Precedent

Yang knows the danger of deportation better than most. In May, 2011, a Mexican national was arrested in Des Moines. Constantino Morales did not have money to hire an attorney, but a local advocacy group stepped in to help with his appeal for asylum.

That appeal was denied, and Morales was deported. Seven months later, Morales was shot and killed in Huehuetan, Mexico. Yang then stepped in to represent the family, and has already won asylum for two of Morales’ sons and two of his brothers.

Other Morales family members are also in the process of appealing for asylum. Unlike that case, though, Luis Alvarez has no proof that deportation would put him in danger. Yang said that hundreds of thousands of individuals apply for asylum from Mexico every year, and only 200 or so are granted asylum status by US immigration officials. Most of those granted asylum are police officers and journalists, who have often been targeted in Mexico’s ongoing drug cartel battles.

Outside of setting a precedent for DACA recipients seeking asylum, Alvarez’s case has also had effects at the local level. Yang said he had another client who had a marijuana charge, among more serious offenses, but that the Alvarez case influenced local authorities to drop the possession charge, because the other charge wasn’t serious enough to threaten that client’s DACA status.

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How Serious Is a Gram of Cannabis?

While Luis Alvarez’s case remains still undecided, Yang said he hopes the dropped charge in that other case is a sign that authorities will adhere to the original guidelines of the DACA program.

“DACA recipients do not become ineligible because of a criminal conviction,” Yang said. “It has to be something serious.”

“Luis’s case, he had one gram, and this is not even trying to get a green card, this is deportation. That is crazy. One gram for a teenager, and he’s been here since he was 11 months old.”

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Pat Radigan

Pat Radigan is a writer based in Sioux Falls, SD, and Lincoln, NE. A former sportswriter, Radigan is currently finishing up a master's degree in journalism at the University of Nebraska.

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  • willnkc

    I see, so he is an illegal immigrant who was smuggled here by his parents. Where are his parents? Are they legal? I think the bigger crime is that he is not in this country legally, and now has been caught up in other circumstances that might get him deported. When he turned 18, what did he do to become legal? If he was couting on Obama’s illegal executive order, then he should have thought otherwise.

    • Shoreline1

      We should let him stay and deport you. He’s a better American.

    • fred

      Willnkc exactly. And Shoreline1you useless emotional response adds nothing to the dialogue.

      • Chaddy Liquor Tits

        And your effortless response to him is not only emotional in return, but contains errors. It’s “your” not “you” – and you didn’t even put a space between Shoreline1 and the improper “you”. But please empty-head fred … enlighten us with “your” wisdom, or whatever the chipped marble that rolls between your ears will allow. Dimwitted hick.

        • Kenny Hotz

          Another enlightened lib who goes out of his way to show he is better than you with ridicule and name calling. The tolerant and never discriminating left shows its face for all to see.

          • Chaddy Liquor Tits

            I’m neither lib nor conservative. I don’t play that game. You made yourself look like an idiot, because you are. Placing a random false category on me doesn’t change that.

          • Kenny Hotz

            And by your measure, you are an idiot too by placing false category on fred. It is ok for you to freely call people dimwits, empty-head or hicks, but it is wrong for someone to call you a lib. Double standard typical of a lib. You are a lib, just admit it. Dont be afraid of what you are. You see your self better than anyone and it shows in you lefty lib replies. You are the supreme being of the internet. How sad for you to have to live with yourself.

      • Shoreline1

        Why did you respond then?

    • Grow Your Own

      When you Live in America you Play By The Rules or Face the Consequences.
      The Consequences in this Person’s case is Possible Deportation. Living in “A Not Cannabis Friendly” state like Iowa “A Prohibition State” increases the possibility of the Odds Not In Your Favor Tremendously.
      Luis Alvarez took his chances with the Law in Iowa and the Law May Win by Revoking his immigration status and Rewarding him with Deportation.

      • Shoreline1

        What part of the Constitution would I find “When you Live in America you Play By The Rules or Face the Consequences.”? Why do you support elected representatives who’s objective is to incarcerate you? With your support, America, the land of the free, has a higher incarceration rate than North Korea, Iran, Russia, and other countries of the world considered “immoral” by our government. Looking forward to Hitler’s reincarnation, are you?

        • Kenny Hotz

          Its called the separation of powers. The legislative branch makes laws and the executive branch enforces them. Play by the rules (legislative) face the consequences (executive). Welcome to America.

    • Skip Johnson

      He should have been spending his time trying to become a citizen, knowing he was here illegally and not been out breaking the law.

  • Jim Smith

    I am in favor of LEGAL immigration, but ILLEGAL Aliens need to go through the same process as all other immigrants have done for centuries. If a person was brought into the United States when they were a child, and are now an adult, it is high time (pun intended) to correct the mistake made by your parents. You can leave and enter legally, or you can appeal your case to the courts. Until you can achieve a legal status, you need to be more careful not to be associated with any illegal activity because the consequences are much more severe. Luis Alvarez should not have gotten in the car. It is a shame that one misdemeanor could result in deportation, but that is the law. It is far better for other illegal aliens to learn from Luis’ mistake than to criticize the existing law.

    • Shoreline1

      Yeah, laws need to be harmful. If they would never have been pulled over, there would have been no harm to anyone from that gram of pot. Laws need to make people suffer for no good reason.

      • Skip Johnson

        Or the pound stashed at hom e.

    • fred

      The illegals bet on the wrong horse. Many were ordered home in 2012 but did nothing. I would have already packed. Now it’s all drama. Did they think Obama would be in forever?

      • Grow Your Own

        I guess the illegals had been told by the Liberal dems that Hillary was guaranteed to win and carry on the Obama/Soros Open Borders destruction of America.
        So Sorry Amigo.

      • Skip Johnson

        That’s king obama, sir!😂

    • john doe

      Ask the few remaining Native American Indians, to see if you’re here legally. You should try to be compassionate with your thoughts, because that Karma can be a bitch. Someday you will find yourself at the mercy of unjust law, and some nimrod will write “It is a shame…, but that is the law.”

  • Shoreline1

    I figure since he’s been here since 11 months old, he’s American.

    • Kenny Hotz

      You would be wrong.

      • Shoreline1

        There is more to being an American than just being born in the country. Like considering yourself a mathematician because you can add and subtract.

        • Kenny Hotz

          No, I am pretty sure being born in this country makes you a citizen and being born outside of the country makes you not be a citizen. Not counting military births and such as well as anchor babies. If you are trying to say there is more to being an American as in the patriotic sense, I can agree.

          • Shoreline1

            That definition of “citizen” was made up by someone other than myself, someone that wanted to justify treating someone from another land inhumanely, at least that is the way it is used today. It’s a law created by primitive men in the past and adopted by primitive men today. Being American does not mean to support a tyrannical government, rather, to support your fellow citizen. To support your fellow citizen ahead of supporting your government is patriotic, in a land of the people and for the people. This is not the “land of the government and for the government” as some would misinterpret.

          • Kenny Hotz

            For the people, by the people known as citizens. You can try to justify you SJW crap but it simply isn’t reality.

  • Tracy L. K.

    People are sick & tired of two different set of rules & two different set of laws for everyone. Just seen on the news..illegal alien driving without a license hits father & his two children, 22mo & 4yrs, head on..killing all three instantly…only gets 2 YEARS in prison! Wife & mother was being interviewed..heartbreaking! Illegal aliens not facing the full extent of the law like everyone else is disgusting & BS! If that kid cared about his DACA & staying in this country he would have been no where near any of that or taken that risk.

    • Jacintho Leite Aquino Rego

      ICE is deporting even immigrants who are doing their paperwork to become citizens, but after many years are still dragging through a slow system and are caught up by circumtances. Not criminals, no heartbreakers ans probably more American in spirit than many “nice” Americans out there. This is not about due process, the rule of law and all that rhetoric.
      This is something ugly rearing its head.

      • Tracy L. K.

        It should have reared its head 40yrs ago. Then maybe we wouldn’t have 30 MILLION Illegal Aliens here. I’ll never understand why 30 million people don’t stay in their own country & FIGHT FOR IT! They come over here protesting, picketing, waving Mexican flags & making demands from a country they broke the law to get into. If your not willing to fight for your OWN country what the hell makes anyone think they will fight for America & have any kind of respect for our country AND its people? When I see how they act & behave on all the news channels..I have no sympathy. Over 800,000 crimes committed against Citizens..just here in Texas alone! Your right..something ugly is rearing its head..illegal aliens who break our laws & then make demands while waving Mexico’s flag! ☮🇺🇸
        -Even Jesus showed people the door-

      • Skip Johnson

        It takes approximately three yrs to become a citizen LEGALLY. Then we say welcome fellow American.

  • Jacintho Leite Aquino Rego

    Don’t wanna be an American idiot
    Don’t want a nation under the new media
    And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
    The subliminal mind fuck America
    Welcome to a new kind of tension
    All across the alien nation
    Everything isn’t meant to be… okay
    Tv dreams of tomorrow
    We’re not the ones who’re meant to follow
    For lets enough aren’t you?
    My country ’tis of thee
    Sweet land of liberty
    Of thee I sing
    God Bless America!
    O beautiful for spacious skies
    Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light
    Lacucaracha, lacucaracha, falalalalalalalala!
    Well maybe I’m the faggot America
    I’m not a part of a redneck agenda
    Now everybody do the propaganda
    And sing along in the age of paranoia
    TEQUILA!

  • KCIR T (Big E)

    Trump and ALL of his followers are racist there is no lie about that. The united states was founded by immigrants from all over the world.(mostly europeans during the colombus era, mind you columbus got lost in his search for inda hence the name he gave NATIVE AMERICANS wich was “INDIANS”) never the less there was a genocide of natives. The “white devils” ripped the natives from their lands thier culture and shoved and cramed them in reservations with no way of surviving wich caused many natives to commit suicide and turn to alcohol and drugs. In other words imagine you’re in your car ,And some random person or people tell you and your family to get out and give them the YOUR car. WHAT WOULD YOU DO? Get out and let them take control and kill you? Or get killed and than they just take your car? And RESERVE A SPOT FOR YOU IN ThE TRUNK. Judge me and say and think what you will the truth is dark and uncomfortable but it is REAL! And there is really nothing Any one can do about it. So for some one to even get deported for a 1 gram of cannabis is absurd. Most of the klans men are government officials. We are free to a certain extent. Free your mind from new age slavery. This young man just wanted to smoke a lil bit of weed. And for that he’s being deported and treated like a criminal? That’s not only unfair but just plain bull shit. The Minorities in the usa are usually poor. The school system is made for minorities to FAIL. I remember going to school(elementary ,middle ,and high school) there was NEVER a permanent teacher or principle. The school was filth the supplies provided were old and out of date.most kids wouldn’t receive lunch and were living some kind of violence from school to home to the streets. We are ALL slaves…no matter what you do. You’re a slave. If your not born rich you’re nothing to the government. Thank you DONALD J TRUMP YOU HAVE CAUSED THE PEOPLE TO LOOK FOR ANSWERS AND GET INVOLVED. ALSO FUCK DONALD J TRUMP HE IS LIKE A BABY WHO NEEDS A SPANKING. SERIOUSLY.

    • Kenny Hotz

      You seemed ill informed and triggered, but that is the left today on anything.

  • KCIR T (Big E)

    All i have to say to all of you racist is Remember SUPERMAN? Yeah superman is a REAL ILLEGAL ALIEN THAT WAS SENT TO THE US WHILE STILL A BABY FROM ANOTHER PLANET. yeah just look at the story of superman. That story was put out for all you racist fascist simpletons.

    • mito mito

      yeah but he was ……….. white and handsome? 🙂

    • Grow Your Own

      But- But Superman is a Marvel Fantasy & Luis Alvarez is a Real Life illegal breaking the Law in a Prohibition State Iowa. Iowa is Enforcing it’s Laws. That Is All. Back to your Marvel comics (Big E).

    • Skip Johnson

      What a scary comparison. You do realize he’s not a real person?

  • Ginin Abottle

    LOL@UALL Your precious weed industry is going to burn haha!

  • Barbara Baldwin

    Geez, I look for robust debates in the comments section and get nothing but tantrums.