Last October, Camila stepped off a plane in Los Angeles, just moments away from reuniting with her long-distance boyfriend, David. She and David had met backpacking in Ecuador, but she lived in Chile while he lived in the United States. Now, two years later, they were ready to commit: Camila had been accepted to a masters program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and David considered proposing marriage.
But Camila never made it out of LAX because US Customs and Border Protection agents, who had flagged Camila for making multiple extended trips to the United States, took her into a room for questioning. (Camila and David's names have been changed to protect their identities.)
"They went through my wallet and my luggage and then my cellphone, all my emails and my photos," Camila told me over Skype. "They saw I'd been to Colorado, so they asked me to show them photos of Colorado and saw photos of a marijuana dispensary."
Then the officials asked her, under penalty of perjury, if she'd ever smoked marijuana. "I said I'd tried it in Colorado. I thought it was normal—everyone in Colorado smokes, and it's not illegal there," Camila said.
While Colorado has legalized weed, the federal government has not. And since possession, sale, and trafficking of marijuana are all federal crimes, admitting to any of these—even without being convicted—can be a deportable offense for non-citizens. So immigration officials detained Camila in a room in the airport for 15 hours and then flew her back to Chile, banning her from ever returning to the United States.
Cases like Camila's have become increasingly common in recent years as more states legalize marijuana, according to immigration attorney Scott Railton.
"A number of states have legalized [marijuana] for medical and recreational use, but the federal law says marijuana and all its derivatives are still a prohibitive substance," Railton told me, referring to the Controlled Substances Act. "It's a real issue for non-citizens because of the authority of the federal government in their cases."
Railton, who has written multiple legal articles about immigration penalties for marijuana use, explained that immigration law is tough on all controlled substances. The Immigration and Nationality Act specifically denies entry to the US to foreigners who were "convicted of, or who admit having committed… a violation of the State, the United States, or a foreign country related to a controlled substance."
And while Camila's case may have been the practice at its zenith, Railton says it's perfectly legal. Federal policy grants Department of Homeland Security officials the right to check phones and laptops without warrants, as they did with Camila's photos.
"They can also ask you questions under oath," Railton said, explaining that if an individual does not respond to the questions, he or she can be immediately removed from the country. "And it only requires an officer at the border or consulate to make a determination that someone is inadmissible for them to be removed."
Railton, who works in northern Washington near the Canadian border, said the issue is particularly prevalent in his region since weed is legal in the state, and people are frequently questioned entering the country. Not only do officers ask people to admit to using drugs, but he said they also stop legal immigrants from entering who say they intend to work in marijuana fields, deeming the work part of drug trafficking, a prohibited activity under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Officers can also deny admission to individuals who say they plan to visit dispensaries, Railton told me.
Railton noted that even carrying a medical marijuana card could be enough to provoke questioning from Customs officials that could lead to deportation.
"Customs and Border Protection on occasion will search a person's wallet. Do not travel internationally with a medical marijuana card," he advised in a recent presentation for the Northwest American Immigration Lawyers Association. "The issue could come up at checkpoints, or if volunteered. The card itself is not proof of a controlled substance violation, but it may lead to questions that establish inadmissibility."
Marijuana advocates like Morgan Fox, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, say cases like Camila's highlight the need to end federal prohibition of marijuana.
"People from anywhere in the US can go to a state where marijuana is legal and responsibly consume a substance that is safer than alcohol without fear of arrest. Yet foreign nationals face discrimination, deportation, and travel bans because their behavior is monitored by, and subject to, federal law enforcement to a much greater degree," Fox told me. "This is just one more reason why federal marijuana prohibition needs to end, and marijuana needs to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act."
Representatives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately comment on marijuana arrests of non-citizens when contacted by VICE.
For Camila, the cost has been both personal and professional: Since she's indefinitely banned from the United States, she and David have broken up; she also had to turn down the opportunity to get her masters in the States. There is one option for her to return to the United States—she can apply to the federal government for a visa waiver, where she can argue the reasons she should be allowed reentry—but obtaining legal counsel to complete the waiver application is costly, and the government rarely grants waivers to individuals who have been removed in the past year or two, immigration experts told me.
"I was deported for being honest with the officers. I've never been in this type of circumstance. I've never committed a crime," Camila told me, welling up with tears. "It makes no sense."
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