New York father-of-two deported to Panama for cannabis - despite state’s legalisation

A New York man and father of two is stranded in Panama after being deported on low-level marijuana charges, despite the Empire State later legalising recreational cannabis and automatically expunging his record in the process.

Leonel Pinilla was deported in 2012, after a traffic stop prompted contact with law enforcement and ICE put him in deportation proceedings on the basis of a group of low-level marijauna posession charges in 2005 and 2008.

Since then, according tothe k, Mr Pinilla’s family has struggled with food insecurity and possible eviction without their primary breadwinner.

“There is nothing in life that can replace being with your family. It is something very traumatic [to be separated],” he told the group in an interview featured on their website. “I would like to have the opportunity to be with my daughters, with my family, my granddaughters who only know me by phone. I would like the opportunity to return and lead a life with my family. Be able to help them. Without that, my life is finished.”

In 2022, as part of New York’s new cannabis legislative scheme, Mr Pinilla’s convictions were vacated.

“At the time, officials noted that the new laws were intended to rectify the state’s ‘racially disparate; enforcement of marijuana crimes,” Jill Applegate, an attorney with Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, who is helping fight Mr Pinilla’s case, wrote recently in a New York Times op-ed. “Yet, for many immigrants who received deportation orders because of their marijuana convictions, the benefits of these new laws have yet to materialize.”

Marijuana is still a federal controlled substance that can be the basis for deportation proceedings, and it can take years of complicated judicial motions to petition the US for travel documents back into America on the basis of expunged past offences.

“A conviction can be expunged, but it can still harm you in terms of immigration,” Marie Mark, of the Immigrant Defense Project, told City Limits in 2021, the year New York legalised recreational marijuana use. “Immigration law has its own definition of conviction, and has its own requirements about when a conviction can be erased — we call it vacated.”

Between 2003 and 2020, at least 1,300 New Yorkers whose most serious conviction was for marijuana possession or sale were ordered deported, accorsint to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse Immigration.