Immigration

Joe Neguse Wants Feds to Allow Pot Workers to Apply for Citizenship

Congressman-elect Joe Neguse speaking to a crowd at the Capitol.
Congressman-elect Joe Neguse speaking to a crowd at the Capitol. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
U.S. Representative Joe Neguse is pushing for a new federal policy that would prevent people who've done lawful work in the cannabis industry from being penalized when they apply for citizenship.

Today, May 2, Neguse sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, requesting that the Department of Homeland Security stop preventing such individuals from applying for citizenship simply because they work in legal cannabis industries. Besides Neguse, whose office drafted it, the letter was signed by Colorado's three other Democratic representatives: Diana DeGette, Jason Crow and Ed Perlmutter.

The letter is the latest round in a month-long fight between Colorado politicians and the federal government over this policy.

At the beginning of April, Mayor Michael Hancock met with an immigrant from El Salvador and another from Lithuania who said they'd been denied citizenship solely because of their work in Colorado's marijuana industry; both individuals are law-abiding, tax-paying permanent residents of the U.S. After the meeting, Denver's mayor sent a letter to Barr, advocating for a change in the federal policy that automatically denies the citizenship applications of cannabis workers.

But just days later, the Department of Homeland Security doubled down, declaring that since marijuana is still classified federally as a Schedule I substance, work in the industry is illegal and a federal criminal offense. In order to become a U.S. citizen, an applicant must be determined to have good moral character; admitting to a federal criminal offense creates a major obstacle.

The letter from the four representatives asks that Homeland Security change its policy to be in line with the Cole Memorandum, a 2013 Obama administration document instructing federal prosecutors to not enforce federal marijuana laws in states with legal cannabis industries. That memo was rescinded by then-AG Jeff Sessions in January 2018.

If Homeland Security is unwilling to change its policy to come into compliance with the Cole Memorandum, Neguse suggests, it should at least clarify the protocol for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to get an individual's admission of a federal criminal offense, such as one involving marijuana. According to the letter, the proper protocol for getting a valid admission was not followed during the interviews of the two immigrants who were denied citizenship.

Finally, the letter asks that the federal government provide the department's legal basis for viewing lawful employment in a cannabis industry as a negative factor in establishing good moral character.

Neguse and a bipartisan group of Colorado representatives are also sponsors of the STATES Act, an bill introduced in the Senate by  Senator Cory Gardner as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to protect people acting in compliance with a state or tribe's laws from prosecution for violating federal marijuana laws.

Neguse's full letter is available below.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.