[author: Courtney Sherwood]
Two Japanese-born restaurant owners who lied on their taxes more than 20 years ago have been ordered by the Supreme Court to leave the country and never come back, in the latest decision to drive home the importance of following every letter of the law for immigrants to the U.S.
Akio and Fusako Kawashima moved to the U.S. in 1984 as lawful permanent residents to found Cho Cho San, a small California restaurant chain. Their 1991 business tax return contained errors that left them underpaying the federal government by $245,100. Both partners later pleaded guilty to felonies for those errors, but they’d expected that their crimes – unlike violent offenses – were light enough that they would be allowed to stay in the country. The Supreme Court’s Feb. 21 ruling proves that they were wrong, and should act as warning to other immigrants that even white-collar crimes can be grounds for deportation.
More immigrants were deported in the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency — nearly 790,000 people — than in any other two-year period in U.S. history, and even workers with green cards or work visas are being targeted when immigration agents find criminal violations. Felonies, especially those resulting in sentences of one year or longer, are especially being targeted by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), but even white-collar crimes can get you booted from the country, as the Supreme Court’s ruling confirms.
The Kawashimas’ case also highlights the importance of talking to an immigration lawyer before entering a guilty plea if you do not have American citizenship.
“Most people think that if they work out a plea deal in criminal court they will be fine,” said Doreen A. Emenike, immigration attorney with California-based Law Offices of Doreen A Emenike. “But the plea will still affect you in the immigration system.”
If customs and immigration officials find out about your plea, they may initiate deportation proceedings. Even if you’re not flagged immediately after your conviction, you may find that you can’t return to the U.S. if you leave the country.
Defendants still also need an attorney who’s familiar with the criminal legal system, Emenike said. Incurring the expense of a second legal adviser may be the best way to avoid deportation, because immigration laws are so complex.
For example, the year that you obtained permanent residency in the U.S. matters. “You may be protected by the law that was in effect when you got your green card,” rather than laws that govern newer immigrants, Emenike said.
If you have a spouse, children or parents who are U.S. citizens and who would suffer extreme hardship if you were deported, that could help you out in immigration court, Emenike said. In some cases, therefore, you may want to marry your partner if you find yourself in trouble with the law.
“But let’s say you murder somebody,” Emenike said. “You can have all the citizen relatives you want, even a green card. If you have an aggravated felony, it’s very hard to stay in the country.”
At the same time as the Obama administration has ramped up deportations of non-citizen convicts, it has encouraged prosecutors to refrain from going after non-citizens who lack criminal records and have strong ties within the country – even if they may not have legal status. Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton has said his agency should spend its time going after non-citizens who pose threats to national security or public safety.
February’s Supreme Court ruling confirms that “public safety” can be very broadly interpreted, however.
For non-U.S. citizens who wish to remain in the country, Eminike offers two pieces of simple advice: Avoid criminal conduct, and work to become a U.S. citizen.
Even with a green card you can still be kicked out of the country, but citizenship – unless obtained through fraud – lets you stay forever.