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News, Politics

Immigrants Working In Cannabis Face Hard Path To Citizenship-Residency

Cesar Gallegos

by Cesar Gallegos

March 13, 2024 08:00 am ET Estimated Read Time: 5 Minutes
Fact checked by Kymberly Drapcho
Immigrants Working In Cannabis Face Hard Path To Citizenship-Residency

The life of an immigrant in America is akin to a legal minesweeper. You pay your taxes, you get the proper identification — you practice an amount of caution that would drive the average person mad. Still, with your existence in America essentially being a legal gray area, your fate is ultimately outside your control.

For immigrants working in cannabis, this delicate balancing act is an even trickier proposition. Though it’s legal at the state level, the cannabis industry’s lack of federal approval means workers in the sector are treated as an after thought — if they’re even acknowledged at all. This puts immigrants who already have to navigate limited workplace protections and increased restrictions in an even tougher position.   

Because of this, immigrants who grow and cultivate the nation’s cannabis often face deplorable working conditions. The retail side of cannabis is not much better for immigrants either. For proof, look no further than the story of Maria Reimers. Despite trying her best to stay on the straight and narrow, Reimers’ work in the cannabis industry meant she was “unsuitable” for U.S. citizenship.

Maria’s Story

Reimers’ story starts when she meets her future husband in El Salvador and decides to leave her old life behind to follow him to his home country, the United States. She married shortly after, securing a green card in the process. In 2014, Maria and her husband decided to start a cannabis business together—Cannarail Station in Ephrata, Washington—a decision that the two would eventually regret. 

At the time, though, Maria and her husband saw the store as a pathway to a better life. The bureaucracy of the whole dispensary application process assured Maria that she wasn’t doing anything wrong — a feeling she still holds to this day. Recalling how she felt at the moment, Maria said

“We didn’t think it would be a problem because, among other things, I had to submit fingerprints to get the license for the store, so they have my information…my husband and I have never broken the law.”

Maria’s trouble started 3 years later when she applied for citizenship. Despite a sparkling application, Reimers’ was rejected for lack of “good moral character.” Federal immigration officials said her work at Cannarail Station meant she and her husband were trafficking illicit drugs — despite recreational cannabis being completely legal in Washington. 

Thankfully, Maria was able to keep her green card. However, Reimers’ attorney advised her against visiting family in El Salvador as she could be detained at the border. This realization broke Reimers’, “I was hoping I could go visit my grandmother. I thought if I become a citizen, maybe I could help my mother. But I am incapacitated,” she said. “I’ve been cut off. I can’t really do much…I can keep paying taxes, though.”

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The Reimers sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services over Maria’s denial. They lost their first appeal in 2022 and their second in July 2023. Disappointed but with no option but to move forward, the Reimers filed an appeal with the Supreme Court in October 2023. The Supreme Court has not yet agreed to hear the case.

When Will Immigrant Cannabis Workers Get Justice?

Reimers’ frustration is shared by hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the country working in cannabis. Despite living in a state where cannabis is legal, immigrants working in the industry are subject to denial of citizenship, lifetime bans from permanent residency, and in the worst cases, even deportation. 

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center is one organization trying to fix this injustice. The organization has called on the Biden administration to “completely remove marijuana from the Controlled Substance Act.” Doing so, the organization says, would remove unnecessary legal burdens put on immigrants and residents working in the multi-billion dollar cannabis industry. 

Biden’s October 2022 executive order pardoning individuals with convictions for simple possession of cannabis-inspired hope that a larger change was on the way. To date, however, Biden’s seemingly progressive stance on cannabis has not translated to improvements for immigrants.

Critics say Biden is dragging his feet on an issue that could easily be resolved. Kathy Brady, director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, says the government’s citizenship and permanent residency policies regarding individuals working in cannabis are a simple interpretation of the law. As such, “What the administration could do would be to change their interpretation, at least for the people working in the legal industry,” Brady noted.

While the government and Biden continue to put off these simple changes, immigrants like Reimers continue to suffer. “I’ve been in this country 20 years. I am contributing to the country, but I don’t have the moral character to become a citizen. Do you think it is fair?” Maria lamented

While they await a decision on their case, the Reimers have been trying to sell their business to no avail. Cannarail remains a painful reminder of the decision the married couple will forever regret.

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