This Navy Veteran Was Deported Over a One-Time Marijuana Offense. After Nearly a Decade in Exile, He’s Back in the U.S.
Howard Bailey came to the United States from Jamaica when he was 17. He served nearly four years in the Navy right out of high school, completing two tours in Operation Desert Storm and earning a National Defense Service Medal. But when it came time for Bailey—a lawful permanent resident—to apply for citizenship, his application was denied over a one-time marijuana offense.
What was already a devastating blow then turned into almost a decade in exile, with Bailey deported to a country he hadn’t seen in 24 years. Last Wednesday, he finally won the fight to come home.
In 1995, shortly after returning to Virginia from his service in the Persian Gulf, he found himself in hot water. As Bailey wrote in a 2014 Politico feature, a neighbor asked if he could have some packages from New York sent to Bailey’s home. Once they arrived, the man gave Bailey a drop-off address. Bailey loaded the boxes into his car, and the police stopped him during his drive. According to Bailey, “The boxes came from California, not New York, and were filled with marijuana. The cops had been tracking the packages.”
Bailey said he’d never smoked marijuana and had no prior knowledge of the packages’ contents. But with Virginia’s strict drug laws, his lawyer suggested he take a plea deal. So he did 15 months in a state work camp and avoided going to trial. “No one—not the judge, nor the lawyer I’d hired—told me when I pleaded guilty to the drug charge that I was giving up my right to be a legal permanent resident of the United States,” he wrote.
Unaware of the damage his plea had done, Bailey set to work rebuilding his life. He returned to his wife and two children. He started two small businesses. He built up wealth, bought a house, and took his family on vacations every year. When he applied to become a U.S. citizen in 2005, he disclosed the marijuana charge from one decade prior.
In 2010, Bailey’s citizenship application was denied. Then his situation got worse: He woke up on June 10, 2010, to the knocks of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. “We’re here to take you away,” one agent said before removing him in front of his wife and children. He spent the next two years in immigration detention, then was deport
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