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by Cyrus Mehta


As lawful permanent residents, most people believe that they can be safe and never removed from the US. This is not the case. A criminal conviction can more often than not render a person removable from the US.

The 1996 immigration laws have affected immigrant families where one parent is a permanent resident and the other parent and kids are US citizens. What typically happens is that the parent is prosecuted for a crime and generally enters into a plea bargain. As most cannot afford high priced attorneys, and are unfamiliar and intimidated as a result of being foreign, they often enter into plea bargains, not realizing that they could be deported. In most states, even the criminal sentencing judge is not required to inform the defendant about the deportation consequences of a criminal conviction.

It is only during incarceration that the permanent resident finds out that he or she is subject to deportation. Just when one is expecting to be released, the INS takes this individual into its own custody and initiates removal proceedings. During this process, the individual remains detained beyond the period of the sentence.

The 1996 laws changed the rules and denied people their ability to ask for a waiver of deportation before an immigration judge. Once a person is convicted of an aggravated felony, there is no basis of relief whatsoever even if the permanent resident has a spouse and children who are US citizens. Before 1996, such an individual could show that he or she was a long-term resident holder with a family and had been rehabilitated.

An aggravated felony can range from crimes as serious as murder, rape, or sexual abuse to petty crimes of theft, money laundering and violence. Anyone convicted of an aggravated felony presently or even in the distant past can be removed from the US forever, with no hope of rejoining the family in the US.

There are many people who were convicted of minor crimes in the past that have been re-defined as an aggravated felony after the 1996 law took effect. These people often now find themselves in removal proceedings even though they have been permanent residents for twenty or more years. The conviction is often detected when applying for US citizenship or when entering the US from a trip abroad.

The 1996 laws are merciless; providing no second chance, changing the rules in the middle of the game, and denying people their day in court. These laws are even tearing Immigrant families apart. It is time to right the wrongs and fix the 1996 Act. There are several provisions in the House that would restore some fairness to long term legal residents and allow them a second chance to remain in the US. Let's hope some fairness is restored to permanent residents.

Cyrus D. Mehta, a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City.He is the trustee of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award.He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities and may be contacted at 212-686-1581 or