For people trying to become a U-S citizen, a criminal offense like a drug charge could keep that from happening.
But if a proposed bill becomes law, immigrants who are here legally and are charged with a minor drug offense could be protected from deportation.
The drug diversion program is a popular option for those facing a minor drug offense. Defendants plead guilty, undergo drug counseling, and if they successfully finish the program; the charges are dismissed.
With Assembly Bill 1351, proposed by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, those charged with low level drug offenses would be able to enter treatment without the guilty plea. If they complete the program, it doesn't goes on their record, which means immigrants wouldn't face deportation.
"A drug offense on somebody's record would prevent them from becoming a citizen. It will in fact do more than that, it will land them in deportation proceedings,” said Andrea Guerrero, Executive Director of Alliance San Diego.
As it stands, even if a leg immigrant chooses the drug treatment diversion, and the slate is wiped cleaned on state level. The conviction would stand under federal immigration law and trigger deportation.
“For somebody who has lawful permanent residency status it could be fatal. Literally, it could be a deportation back to a home country where they don't speak the language and they don't have any family,” said Guerrero.
The California District Attorneys Association disagrees with the bill. Sean Hoffman, the Director of Legislation at CDAA, says AB 1351 would turn the current process on its head, allowing the defendant to enter a treatment program before entering a plea.
“If the program was not completed successfully, only then would we really begin criminal proceedings. From a practical standpoint, this creates more work for the criminal justice system - more hearings, as well as the difficulty in tracking down witnesses and evidence many months after the offense occurred," explained Hoffman.
The bill, Hoffman said, would reduce the length of drug treatment programs down to a third of what they currently are.
"Right now, someone participates in drug diversion for 18 to 36 months," Hoffman said. "This bill would only allow for 6 to 12 months of treatment."
If the drug offense is considered violent or if the defendant has a prior drug offense conviction, the drug diversion program is not an option.