The Alaska House Judiciary Committee got an earful Friday when it opened up testimony on a bill that could lead to more deportations of noncitizens convicted of low-level felonies.
Several experts on immigration law said the state's legal memo that the committee relied on to adopt the measure last week was packed with inaccuracies. One suggested it would have received a failing grade if a law student had written it.
"The Legislature here is relying on a two-page memo that was provided by the state attorney general's office. Unfortunately, that memo is an incompetent memo," said Anchorage immigration attorney Margaret Stock, testifying by telephone. "It does not properly reflect the state of immigration law. Almost every sentence in the memo is inaccurate."
Added Ann Benson, supervising attorney for the Washington Defender Association Immigration Project in Seattle and a consultant in Alaska on immigration and criminal matters: "I want to emphasize the erroneous nature of the legal memo you have been provided."
Last week, several members of the Judiciary committee cited the memo, by Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny, the state's chief prosecutor, in agreeing to add the anti-immigrant measure to what had been a noncontroversial bill increasing the penalty for a crime against a correctional officer.
In his testimony and memo, Svobodny said current law treated noncitizens better than citizens because noncitizens could apply for a reduced sentence to avoid deportation. That situation "violates the equal protection principles of the Alaska Constitution because it authorizes courts to treat defendants differently based on their citizenship and immigration status," Svobodny's memo said.
Svobodny didn't attend Friday's hearing. In his place was Annie Carpeneti of the Department of Law's criminal division.
"I feel like I should take a moment to defend my boss, Mr. Svobodny, for the criticism he has received with this memo," Carpeneti said. "It is not a legal memo, it's a summary of an amendment and the reasons why we think it's a good one."
Svobodny sought to amend the correctional officer's bill, House Bill 218, by eliminating access to a special three-judge sentencing review panel if a defendant is a legal immigrant seeking a lesser sentence to avoid deportation. Alaska's presumptive sentence law created the three-judge panel to rule in situations where the trial judge believes the standard sentence would be "manifestly unjust."
According to testimony and criminal cases, including two reviewed and approved by the Alaska Court of Appeals last year, a sentence of a year or more for violent felonies is likely to result in deportation for a noncitizen. In agreeing that a 364-day sentence was legal for a Jamaican convicted of stabbing another man in a drunken assault -- it was one day less than the statutory minimum -- the Court of Appeals called deportation a "harsh" punishment and agreed with the three-judge panel that ruled that kicking the man out of the country would have been a "manifest injustice."
Stock said that a serious felony such as murder or the sexual assault of child would lead to deportation regardless of the state-court sentence.
Stock disputed Svobodny's claim that only noncitizens benefit from the sentence reduction. A noncitizen defendant might have family members who are citizens who would lose their father or husband through deportation.
"It also affects naturalized citizens, such as military veterans who naturalized through military service, because those individuals will face, potentially, denaturalization and deportation as a result of this change to the law," said Stock, a retired Army Reserve officer who taught at West Point.
Arundel Pritchett, staff attorney at the Alaska Institute for Justice in Anchorage, a nonprofit that assists immigrants and victims of domestic violence, said it's not uncommon for the victim of family violence to be charged with a crime.
"Preventing the consideration of immigration consequences in sentencing could result in the ultimate coup for the abuser of a noncitizen victim -- she could not only be wrongly convicted, but also also banished from the United States with no hope, ever, of returning," Pritchett said.
After the testimony, the bill was held in committee.
Rep. Charisse Millett, who initially suggested the amendment on behalf of Svobodny and the bill sponsor, House Speaker Mike Chenault, said Friday she was having second thoughts.
"It's going to be a tough amendment to rescind but I'm going to do the right thing," said Millett, an Anchorage Republican who represents the Lower Hillside. "I'm Alaska Native and they brought up the issue of Alaska Natives that are married to immigrants and I understand that -- I've seen it time and time again and the last thing I want to do is split up a family."
Millett, who listened to the Judiciary Committee meeting from another hearing she was attending, said she found the testimony by Stock and others to be eye-opening.
"I think the (Svobodny) memo did really confuse all the members," she said. She said she planned to meet with an immigration law expert in the Attorney General's office who supports the amendment, and with Stock, before deciding how she would proceed if the bill gets another hearing.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER