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Originally published Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 9:09 PM

New state law protects legal immigrants' rights

A one-day reduction in the state's maximum sentence for a gross misdemeanor is expected to reduce the number of legal immigrants who face deportation, supporters say

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the immigrant-advocacy group OneAmerica, said... Read more
quotes To be fair, should residents also receive one day less in their sentence for the same... Read more
quotes Did the article mention how this law affects illegal immigrants too, or did I miss that... Read more

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A one-day reduction in the state's maximum sentence for a gross misdemeanor is expected to reduce the number of legal immigrants who face deportation, supporters say.

The new state law, which goes into effect Friday, reduces the maximum penalty from 365 to 364 days in jail for crimes such as drunken driving, harassment and low-level thefts and assaults.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said the measure was drafted to spare legal residents, a group which includes green-card holders and political refugees, from mandatory federal deportation for yearlong sentences. Under federal law, a legal resident will be deported after being sentenced to 365 days or more behind bars, even if part or all of the sentence is suspended. Legal residents convicted of domestic violence still face deportation, regardless of the sentence, according to the Seattle City Attorney's Office.

Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigration Rights Project and a practicing immigration-rights lawyer, said the sentencing change "restores discretion to immigration judges."

Barón said legal residents convicted of gross misdemeanors can still be arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and face a deportation hearing, but by changing the maximum sentence by one day judges will now have a chance to review the person's case, their life and hear about them.

Any time a legal resident is sentenced to serve 365 days or more behind bars an immigration judge must sign off on deportation, he said.

City Attorney Pete Holmes thinks legal residents have been punished too harshly for gross misdemeanors. For nearly a year, he has instructed lawyers in his office to handle the gross misdemeanor-sentencing structure with the top of the range being 364 days, to keep defendants from being deported.

"This is not a public-safety issue. To me it's a social-justice issue," Holmes said.

Legal residents convicted of felonies and sentenced to less than 365 days in jail can face deportation depending on the crimes they committed, said Travis Stearns, deputy director of the Washington Defender Association.

Holmes said the sentencing change will not protect illegal immigrants.

Stearns, whose organization pushed for the sentencing change, said there was no uniformity statewide on how gross misdemeanor sentences were handed down. Some judges and city attorneys weighed the fact that defendants would be deported if sentenced to 365 days in jail and officials in other jurisdictions weren't aware of the issue, Stearns said.

"The way to solve this problem, in a way that was just and uniform around the state, was to redefine it in this way," Stearns said.

Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the immigrant-advocacy group OneAmerica, said the new law is "a really good thing."

"That one day triggers consequences. It's amazing how many people have no idea."

Kline, who was among the group of Puget-Sound area lawmakers who sponsored the bill, said "the reason we did it was to not make people who were simply convicted of misdemeanors to appear to the federal government to be felons and be deportable."

"Punishment is intended to be proportionate to the crime, not every person who is convicted of a misdemeanor should be fed to the wolves," Kline said.

Rep Jason Overstreet, R-Blaine, was one of the five lawmakers to vote against the measure.

Overstreet says it was unnecessary to tinker with the long-standing gross misdemeanor-sentencing structure.

"More education of judges would have been a better solution. I'm more in favor of leaving judicial discretion in place," Overstreet said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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