Legal immigrants in Denver are facing renewed hostility from the federal government if they work or have worked in Colorado’s legal cannabis industry. Claiming these immigrants are not of “good moral character” under federal law, immigration officials are denying their applications to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Mayor Michael B. Hancock and City Attorney Kristin M. Bronson condemn the Trump administration’s latest attack on immigrants. In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr sent Wednesday, Mayor Hancock is seeking official guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure “consistent implementation and enforcement of state marijuana laws” in more than 30 U.S. states.
“Denver understands the need for federal laws and regulations regarding citizenship and immigration, but we are seeing the heartbreaking effects that those federal laws and regulations are having on our residents,” Mayor Hancock said. “However, under current federal policy, lawful, permanent residents like the Denver residents I have met with are being denied naturalization and may lose their legal status based on their lawful employment in the cannabis industry.”
On Tuesday, Hancock and Bronson, along with Excise and Licenses Executive Director Ashley Kilroy, met two Denver immigrants who were told by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that they were ineligible for naturalization strictly because of their past or current employment in the cannabis industry. The immigrants – one from El Salvador, the other from Lithuania – have each been permanent residents in the U.S. for more than 20 years. They have both graduated from Colorado schools, paid their taxes and consider Colorado their home.
“It was definitely like getting sucker punched,” immigrant Oswaldo Barrientos told Mayor Hancock. “I thought I was a shoo-in. I’ve been here long enough. I’ve paid my dues.”
Attorneys Bryce Downer and Aaron Elinoff of the Novo Legal Group in Denver represent Barrientos and the other immigrant, who is withholding her name for fear of complications with her current employer in the medical field.
Downer told the Mayor immigration officials are hardly informing the immigrants of their right to an attorney during the naturalization interview. He also said officials are essentially trapping immigrants into openly admitting to felonious activities under federal law, thus putting them at risk of detention and deportation should they travel abroad and later return to the U.S.
“The risk is real,” he said. “And it’s severe.”
In addition to seeking official federal guidance, Mayor Hancock and Bronson have shepherded city staff to work with local organizations, state agencies and the cannabis industry to more effectively inform immigrants of the risk, under federal law, of working in Colorado’s legal cannabis industry. Soon, the city will post and distribute a flyer (see attached) that warns of these risks.
Additionally, on Denver 8 TV, the City will begin airing a PSA originally produced in a collaborative effort by Servicios de La Raza and Marijuana Industry Group (MIG) roughly a year ago that warns noncitizens of the risk of possessing, consuming, selling or growing marijuana under federal law.
“This is an issue, it’s a continuing problem,” Bronson said. “Unless and until policies change, aspects of this important, legal and burgeoning industry here in Denver are going to be prohibitive for a lot of people.”
“I’m sorry about what’s happening to you,” Mayor Hancock told the immigrants. “This is horrible.”