Advocates on Wednesday urged state lawmakers to help immigrants avoid potential deportation by supporting legislation that would reduce the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor by just one day.
The bill, recommended by the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, would shave misdemeanor sentences from 365 days to 364 —minimizing the chance immigrants convicted of low-level crimes would face involvement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents.
That’s because a one-year misdemeanor sentence in Connecticut is classified by federal immigration law as an “aggravated felony” and can trigger deportation.
“Connecticut non-citizen residents, including lawful permanent residents, sometimes face unexpected and unduly harsh immigration consequences because of the relationship between the state’s penal code and federal immigration law,” commission Executive Director Alex Tsarkov and Judge Robert Devlin Jr. said in written testimony.
“Such a sentence also denies immigration judges, in certain cases, of discretion to consider mitigating circumstances against deportation, such as long-term residence in the United States or past military service,” Tsarkov and Devlin said.
Supporters of the measure testified the one-day change would make a huge difference for those susceptible to immigration enforcement. They also mentioned several other states that have enacted the same adjustment, including Nevada, California, Washington, and Oregon.
Yale Law School student Regina Wang said the current one-year term can even affect individuals whose sentences are fully suspended and don’t spend any time in jail.
“Further, individuals who are convicted of aggravated felonies become ineligible for many important forms of discretionary relief, including asylum,” Wang said.
Lawmakers and activists held a press conference on Monday to highlight that bill and another that would direct state and local law enforcement not to turn over detained undocumented immigrants to ICE without a judicial warrant.
That measure would expand the Connecticut Trust Act, which says state and local law enforcement can only detain suspects at the request of ICE beyond the time of their scheduled release under certain circumstances. Those criteria include those who have been convicted of or are wanted for a felony, are gang members or suspected terrorists, a public safety threat or subject to a deportation order.
ICE often asks that incarcerated immigrants be held by issuing a request called a “civil detainer” that does not have the legal force of a warrant.
Mike Lawlor, the top criminal justice advisor to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said the governor’s office is monitoring the bill and has had lots of conversations with advocates. Lawlor said the “devil is in the detail,” and supporting the measure will depend on the bill’s final language.
Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said the bill would ensure that state and local law enforcement agencies would not be enforcing laws that are ICE’s responsibility, and wouldn’t expend their limited resources to do another agency’s job.
“The federal government and Immigration and Customs Enforcement is responsible for our immigration laws,” Tong said. “However they are written and enforced that’s up to them. It is not up to the state of Connecticut and state and local law enforcement to do their jobs for them, and if they want us to hold somebody, they can get a warrant.”