Zero tolerance

Feds look to deport teenager busted for pot

After Hurricane Ivan slammed through their hometown of Pensacola last September, Christine Furman and her two children decided they needed a break. They boarded a flight to Europe - a bad decision, as it would turn out.

For Ryan Snodgrass, Furman's 18-year-old son, the trip through France, Belgium and Holland was a chance to sample the cuisine of continental Europe. Ryan is a chef at a resort on Pensacola Beach, and shopping at European markets and dining in European restaurants was a way to prepare himself for the next step in his career - attending Le Cordon Bleu, a culinary school in Orlando to which he'd been accepted.

On Oct. 12, the family's Delta flight from Amsterdam landed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Furman and her two children are Canadian by birth, but they've lived in the United States for almost 13 years and are permanent residents. Earlier in the year, in fact, the Department of Homeland Security renewed their green cards until 2014.

So, as she passed through the border checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson and swiped her green card (which is actually pink), Furman was surprised to see immigration officials pull aside her son. There was a problem, they explained. The computer had flagged Ryan because of a marijuana arrest three years earlier, when he was 15. The officers confiscated his green card and passport and told him he'd have to return to Atlanta in January for what's called a deferred inspection.

Three months later, Ryan and his mother were back in Atlanta, with certified copies of the paperwork surrounding Ryan's arrest. Ryan had been a passenger in a car that was pulled over by police, who found less than an ounce of marijuana under the seat in front of him. Ryan admitted it was his. He was charged with possession and, because the pot was divided among a few bags, intent to sell, manufacture or deliver.

The teenager received the usual punishment: probation, a fine, a curfew. He had to write a letter of apology to his mother. By all accounts, juvenile court seemed to work as it should: It put the fear of God into a wayward youth without forever scarring his record into adulthood.

Except that's not how it happened. As Steve Crawford, a former state and federal prosecutor in Florida explains, juvenile records might be sealed from the public, but not from the rest of law enforcement.

"Your employer might not be able to find out about it, but law enforcement could always know about it," Crawford says. "Then, with the passage of the PATRIOT Act from a Congress that's scared to death, comes this blanket edict that if you have this prior violent crime or prior narcotics crime, you're going to be deported."

Sure enough, that's the news Ryan and his mother got in Atlanta. James Clark, an enforcement officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of Homeland Security, ruled that "this immigration officer has reason to believe that you are an alien who has been an illicit trafficker in a controlled substance."

In the government's eyes, then, Ryan is not a teenager with a juvenile record. He is an adult who's a drug trafficker.

After his meeting with immigration officials, Ryan was led away in handcuffs while his mother looked on in horror. Soon after, she reached Marshall Cohen, an Atlanta immigration attorney who began working to free Ryan.

"I'm a single parent," Furman says. "I've done a great job with my kids. I've had one kid get in trouble for a stupid mistake. And we're not talking murder or robbery. I understand we need better security, but you've got to have people who have common sense."

During the week Ryan was behind bars, Furman racked up $500 in collect calls, trying to reassure him. On the day he was released, officers loaded him into a van and dropped him outside the gates of the Atlanta jail.

Later this month, Ryan will return to Atlanta again for a hearing before William Cassidy, one of three U.S. immigration judges based in Atlanta. Cassidy has a reputation as one of the toughest immigration judges in America. In cases of immigrants requesting asylum, for example, Cassidy rejects about 19 out of every 20 cases he hears.

Of course, Ryan's case is a different matter. But, as with asylum cases, Cassidy has great latitude in deciding Ryan's fate. That's why Furman is gathering up letters of reference from Ryan's employer, his friends, and anyone who might help convince Cassidy that her son shouldn't be kicked out of the States.

The irony is that if Ryan had never left to visit Europe, he likely never would have caught the attention of immigration officials. But swiping his green card at the border set forces into motion that may be unstoppable.

"I was expecting them to give me back my passport and green card," Ryan says. "They made it out like I was just supposed to go there and pick it up. I felt like I was tricked."

Zachary Mann, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Miami, says he can't speak specifically about Ryan's case. But, he says, "when you come to the United States as a visitor or as a resident, you make an agreement to be a law-abiding citizen while you're here. And if you commit a crime, you essentially break that agreement and may be subject to removal."

Mann adds that there is no exception made for certain drug-related crimes committed when the person is a juvenile.

Cohen, though, claims the law is open to interpretation. The government, he says, is "taking the wrong position. I don't think that section of law is meant for a 15-year-old kid that's been charged with 20 grams of pot. I don't think that's what a trafficker is."

Furman says that until she knows her son's fate, it's hard to plan for the next few months. For instance, should she pay the tuition for Le Cordon Bleu if her son won't be around to attend? "We're stuck. Which way does he go?"

Ryan has lived in the U.S. since he was 4. He doesn't have much in the way of family left in Canada. Furman doesn't want to think too much about what will happen if he's deported.

Says Cohen, "They're going to great lengths and wasting a lot of money trying to deport somebody who doesn't need to be deported. The kid made a mistake when he was 15. But he's turned his life around."