“There is nothing in life that can replace being with your family.”
Leonel, now 57, lived in the United States for 22 years as a lawful permanent resident, and raised a family in New York City. His life turned upside down in 2009, when a simple traffic stop led to ICE putting him into deportation proceedings primarily on the basis of minor marijuana possession convictions and a single drug conviction from 15 years prior. Leonel spent years in immigration detention, while his family struggled to get by without him. In 2012, ICE deported Leonel to Panama. New York State decriminalized marijuana possession seven years later, but Leonel is still fighting for a chance to return to his family.
Getting By in New York
Leonel was the center of his family in New York, which included his partner and their two children. Life was never easy, as they struggled with mental illness and the challenges of trying to make ends meet in New York City. But when ICE detained and then deported Leonel, the family’s crisis deepened. Without him, his partner and children were forced to navigate several medical crises, severe food insecurity, and possible eviction. In the decade since his deportation, Leonel’s daughter was forced to take on the role of breadwinner and caregiver for her mother, brother, and her own daughter.
Decriminalized but Still Exiled
In 2019, New York State passed a new law decriminalizing minor marijuana possession, overturning the convictions that had prevented Leonel from fighting his deportation more than a decade ago. Today, he lives in an unstable region in Panama, frightened for his own safety and unable to communicate with his family because of unreliable internet access. Despite the recent laws decriminalizing marijuana, Leonel nonetheless remains separated from his family.
“There is nothing in life that can replace being with your family. It is something very traumatic [to be separated]. I would like to have the opportunity to be with my daughters, with my family, my granddaughters who only know me by phone. I would like the opportunity to return and lead a life with my family. Be able to help them. Without that, my life is finished.”
In 2022, a court in New York vacated the marijuana convictions that were the primary basis for Leonel’s deportation. Now, Leonel asks DHS to agree to his request to reopen his immigration case so that he has a chance to come home.
Leonel is represented by Scott Foletta at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.
- Deported to Panama in 2012 after about 32 years in the U.S.
- Punished with deportation for marijuana possession which is now legal under New York law
- Lived in New York City
- Separated from daughter, son, and partner
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