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Will I be deported after federal drug trafficking conviction?

By Spodek Law Group | October 16, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 17, 2023)

Last Updated on: 17th October 2023, 05:38 pm


Will I be Deported After a Federal Drug Trafficking Conviction?

Getting convicted of a federal drug trafficking crime can have huge consequences for non-citizens living in the U.S. One of the biggest worries is getting deported and removed from the country. So what exactly happens after a conviction? Will deportation automatically follow? Here’s what you need to know.

It Depends on Your Immigration Status

Whether you face deportation after a drug trafficking conviction depends a lot on your current immigration status. For example, if your a lawful permanent resident (green card holder), the law states that you can be deported if convicted of an “aggravated felony.” Drug trafficking is considered an aggravated felony under immigration law. So generally, a conviction means you’ll face deportation proceedings. But it’s not completely automatic in all cases. There are some defenses that a good immigration lawyer may be able to use to help you fight deportation. More on that later.

If your not a permanent resident and don’t have legal status, a drug trafficking conviction pretty much guarantees that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will take action to deport you. Without the protections of citizenship or a green card, your very vulnerable to deportation after committing this kind of crime.

The Definition of Drug Trafficking

Not all drug crimes are considered drug trafficking under immigration law. Trafficking involves manufacturing, distributing, selling, transporting, importing, exporting or possessing large quantities of a controlled substance. Things like possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use don’t meet the definition. The amount you need to trigger a trafficking charge depends on the drug involved. For example, under federal law, you need to posses 500 grams of powder cocaine to face a trafficking charge. The thresholds are lower for drugs like heroin and meth.

So if your conviction involves a small quantity meant just for personal use, you may be able to avoid immigration consequences. But trafficking and other major drug felonies will almost always lead to deportation action.

Mandatory Detention

Another consequence of a drug trafficking conviction is mandatory detention by ICE. If immigration authorities take you into custody after your release from criminal custody, your held without bond. Mandatory detention means you don’t get the chance to argue for your release in front of an immigration judge. Your stuck in detention until your deportation case concludes. This process can take months or longer. Mandatory detention is very harsh, especially if you have family and community ties in the U.S. Some advocates have argued that mandatory detention violates due process rights. But so far the courts have upheld the practice. There are some efforts in Congress to scale back mandatory detention for some immigrants.

Criminal Bars to Relief from Deportation

A drug trafficking conviction also makes you ineligible for most forms of relief from deportation. For example, you can’t seek cancellation of removal, which allows some long-time residents to remain in the U.S. if deportation would cause “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.” Trafficking is also a bar to asylum and other humanitarian protections. The lack of relief options makes defending against deportation very difficult in most drug trafficking cases.

Potential Defenses Against Deportation

While the immigration consequences of drug trafficking are clearly very harsh, there are some potential defenses and arguments that a skilled immigration attorney can raise in certain cases. Here are a few examples:

  • Challenge whether your conviction meets the legal definition of drug trafficking under immigration law. For example, if the amount was small and meant just for personal use.
  • Argue that your offense doesn’t qualify as an aggravated felony because you received a suspended sentence or other leniency.
  • Claim there are legal errors in your criminal case that could result in having the conviction overturned on appeal or in a post-conviction proceeding.
  • Apply for a U visa if you cooperated with law enforcement against the traffickers. U visas provide protection to victims of certain crimes who help investigators.
  • Seek humanitarian relief like Deferred Action if you’ve lived in the U.S. since childhood and have compelling ties here.

While defenses in drug trafficking cases are limited, an experienced immigration lawyer may find arguments to help you avoid deportation, especially if there are sympathetic factors in your case. Consulting with a lawyer is important before giving up hope.

Getting Back Lawful Status After Deportation

If you do end up getting deported after a trafficking conviction, there may be ways to legally return to the U.S. in the future in some circumstances. For example, a governor’s pardon for your offense could make it possible to obtain a waiver allowing you to apply for lawful permanent resident status again through a family petition. Other possibilities depend on the specifics of your situation. So don’t assume deportation is the end – there may be options down the road.


Being convicted of a federal drug trafficking felony puts non-citizens at very high risk for deportation. Mandatory detention and lack of relief from removal make these cases tough to defend. Still, an experienced immigration lawyer can evaluate the specifics of your offense and immigration history to figure out if there are any arguments to try to allow you to remain in the country. Getting quality legal advice is important to understand whether deportation is inevitable or if there are options worth pursuing. The consequences of just giving up can be devastating for you and your family.

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