A young immigrant is facing deportation for trying to sell a minuscule amount of marijuana three years ago.
Federal immigration agents arrested Mexican immigrant Luis Gerado Zazueta, 21, at the Washington County Courthouse on March 23.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials claimed he faced deportation for a serious drug offense.
Zazueta's actual crime? Trying to sell a $20 baggie of weed to a classmate on their morning walk to high school three years ago, according to the Washington County Sheriff's Office report of the incident.
In July 2014, Zazueta pleaded guilty to an attempt to commit a class B felony. Under Oregon law, that offense could have been expunged from his criminal record almost two years ago.
Instead, Zazueta, who has lived in the Portland area since age 3, has become the latest casualty of the war on drugs, even as Oregon enjoys a legal cannabis sales boom following the 2014 passage of Measure 91, which legalized recreational marijuana.
Zazueta is now awaiting deportation in Tacoma, Wash., after showing up to court March 23 on charges of driving while intoxicated. His court appearance was scheduled three days before his wedding day. He was about to marry a green-card holder, according to his attorney. (The marriage would not have affected his immigration status.)
The DUII case hasn't been heard by the court. Instead, Zazueta is being deported for the weed conviction.
Zazueta arrived in Oregon before he was 3 years old, and under the Obama administration he registered for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a limited form of amnesty, his attorney Maria Zlateva says.
He was one of at least three so-called "Dreamers" arrested in an immigration sweep of undocumented immigrants in the Portland area last month. The arrest of people whose only immigration crime was coming to the U.S. as minors adds a new level of fear that the Trump administration is making good on the threat of mass deportations.
But immigration authorities explained away this arrest. "[Zazueta] was targeted for immigration enforcement based on a prior felony drug conviction. Mr. Zazueta was transferred to the Northwest Detention Center where he remains in ICE custody awaiting the outcome of removal proceedings," said ICE spokeswoman Rose Richeson in a statement last week.
Zazueta faces the double threat of the federal government's continued view of marijuana as an illegal, dangerous drug and the Trump administration's zealous enforcement of federal immigration laws.
"It's a sad testament to how the failed war on drugs continues to impact communities of color at disproportionate rates," says Mat dos Santos, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. "Ultimately we as a country have to rethink these policies and account for the fact that young people make mistakes. We want them to learn from their mistakes and not to have their life completely ruined."
Zazueta's case is also the latest illustrating how the end of cannabis prohibition in Oregon hasn't ended the risks for small-time offenders.
Last summer, WW reported that Native American teenager Devontre Thomas faced a year in prison for allegedly possessing a gram of cannabis at a Salem boarding school. That prosecution drew widespread outrage, including from Oregon's congressional delegation, and U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams dropped the federal charge a week later.
Unlike Thomas' case, Zazueta's ended in a conviction. But his crime is similarly paltry.
On April 24, 2014, a resident living near Westview High School in outer Northwest Portland snapped photos of an apparent drug deal between students, according to the sheriff's report.
Eventually, Zazueta's 19-year-old friend told an officer that he and Zazueta were walking to Westview when the friend "asked Luis for some marijuana and Luis said he did have a little," the report states.
"[The friend] said he paid Luis twenty dollars for the bag of marijuana," the report notes. "[The friend] said after that they walked to school and walked around the halls until I found them and took them to the office."
What Zazueta did remains illegal despite voters' legalization of recreational cannabis.
But under Oregon law, a drug offense like Zazueta's may be expunged, says defense lawyer Bear Wilner-Nugent.
"As long as Mr. Zazueta does not have any other criminal convictions anywhere in the world," Wilner-Nugent says in an email, "based on the review I have just completed of his Washington County criminal file, it is my professional opinion that he is now eligible to have that conviction set aside ('expunged')."
But the fresh start that would come with expungement wouldn't apply to Zazueta, because he isn't a U.S. citizen. Expunging a criminal conviction doesn't affect ICE's ability to find out about it or use it as grounds for deportation.
Zazueta turned 18 six weeks before the marijuana arrest. That was an important factor in charging the crime, and meant he was no longer eligible for the DACA program and never will be, says Zlateva, who declined to make her client or his family available for an interview, citing widespread fears about retaliation by ICE. (Zazueta didn't renew his DACA status after the 2014 marijuana conviction—a move that may have prevented his immediate deportation.)
"It doesn't matter who is president," Zlateva says, noting that immigration authorities will count felony and most misdemeanor drug offenses against immigrants even if they are expunged. "Expungement doesn't work. It doesn't ever make it better."