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In late August, U.S. Immigration Judge William Strasser in Newark heard the asylum application of a Rwandan woman who claimed to have been gang-raped during the civil chaos in her homeland. She had been attacked, she said, because she married a police officer who belonged to a different tribe. The case was complicated, however, because she had confessed to law enforcement officers at the airport that she had swallowed several dozen condoms filled with drugs before getting on the plane. Men had forced her at gunpoint to be their mule, she said. The admission had resulted in a drug conviction, and the conviction had triggered deportation proceedings to send her back to Rwanda. During a break in testimony, Strasser became visibly frustrated with the legal advice the woman had received before the conviction, which severely narrows the circumstances under which an asylum claim can succeed. It’s a common scenario, he said: criminal defense lawyers landing their clients in far worse circumstances than any threatened by the U.S. criminal justice system. “The probability is she should have had an immigration lawyer before she pled guilty,” Strasser said. “I have these people coming in here all the time.” For aliens, even those legally in the United States, conviction-triggered deportation proceedings are far more serious than a criminal record or a spell in prison. A theft offense or crime of violence where the person is sentenced to one year or more is considered an aggravated felony for immigration purposes. Such a conviction automatically makes a client deportable. “Generally speaking, there is no relief available,” says Robert Frank of Newark’s Frank & York, a former deputy attorney general in the Division of Criminal Justice who now runs an immigration practice. “A person convicted of possession of stolen property is in exactly the same position as a person who is convicted of murder.” “I have seen cases where people have been imprisoned with pending charges and the defense attorney has gotten [a deal for] time served. By entering the plea the man walks out,” Frank says, and the criminal lawyer feels satisfied. “But that plea becomes the basis for deportation.” The federal Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. 1101 et seq., which has long provided for removal of aliens convicted of serious crimes, was amended in the 1990s to increase the panoply of deportable offenses and to make judicial review harder to obtain. In addition, a 1996 amendment prohibited discretionary relief from deportation for aliens convicted of aggravated felonies such as murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor and illicit trafficking in controlled substances or in firearms or destructive devices. Though many criminals are beyond the help even of a defense lawyer with knowledge of immigration law, some cases fall near the threshold of seriousness that can make the difference. Frank offers this example: “Drug distribution is an aggravated felony. The prosecution may offer a plea to possession with intent to distribute, and I’ll give you probation. The alien might say, I’ll plead to simple possession but I’ll spend a year in jail � I’m going to be punished more but I’ll take a lesser charge � that’s something that I might suggest to somebody.” 

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