Alex Timofeev has lived in Madison, WI for two decades. But he could be permanently sent back to Russia for smoking marijuana as a teenager. Although Timofeev served out his sentence for three marijuana possession charges accrued 15 years ago, he is now stuck in a deportation limbo.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Timofeev, now a 35-year old father of two, recounted how his life was changed by an immigration law that allows the deportation of immigrants who who served time for any of a wide range of crimes, from shoplifting to drug possession to murder. Timofeev served his sentence years ago through a work release program and drug rehab, but did not know that pleading guilty at the time would put his immigration status in jeopardy.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rang Timofeev’s doorbell at 9 a.m. in September 2012 without telling him the nature of their visit. It was only when he was arrested and en-route to the Milwaukee immigration center that the agents informed him that he could be deported because of the decades-old marijuana charges.
“I still don’t have an explanation for why it took them fifteen years,” Timofeev said. “At some point, my legal status was in some sort of limbo. At some point, they denied something somewhere. It’s not like I’m hiding anywhere. I don’t jump apartments and I don’t jump jobs.”
Timofeev was put into the immigration detention center housed within the Dodge County jail. “I spent four months in a cell with a solid metal bed with crappy mattresses, where lockdown was for three-fourths of the day,” he recalled. He shared two toilets with fifteen other men on his floor.
Medical care was “a bad nightmare,” as he discovered when he asked for medication for a childhood ear injury. “My right ear started to go deaf, I put in a written request…It took them a couple of days for them to even check on me.” He received ear drops only after his nurse practitioner mother called the detention center repeatedly. Timofeev is trilingual in Spanish, Russian, and English, so he helped to translate and personally write medical slips for Mexican detainees.
Timofeev left the detention center after the Dane County circuit judge vacated his 15-year-old guilty pleas. But the state is appealing the decision, leaving Timofeev in constant fear of deportation. Due to the four month detention, he has lost his job and is unable to find another because immigration officials took away his ID. He now relies financially on his fiancée, Elizabeth, who works part-time and attends community college. He is also unable to pay immigration attorney fees or child support for his two American daughters.
The law behind Timofeev’s predicament is the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which requires that any immigrants who served time for past crimes must be deported. As a result, countless legal immigrants and permanent residents serve the sentence dictated by the criminal justice system, only to be punished again with detention and deportation in the immigration system.
The Obama administration claimed it would only deport criminals, but the statistics from Obama’s first term reveal a far wider net that has entrapped hundreds of thousands of non-delinquent immigrants. If deported, Timofeev will be one of 40,448 people deported for drug offenses, and is also part of a group of 204,810 parents who are separated from their American-born children. Once deported, he cannot return to the U.S. even as a tourist.
As Timofeev’s lawyer, Davorin J. Odrcic, explained to ThinkProgress, “If someone is convicted for two simple convictions of pot possession, that person is permanently inadmissible [to the U.S.]. It’s the same situation with someone convicted of a misdemeanor, even though his family can petition for him, there’s no waiver on the inadmissibility front.”
The 2013 immigration reform bill that passed the Senate recently is also unlikely to help Timofeev, since the bill only makes it harder for people in his situation to seek relief. That bill would prohibit legal status for people who have committed three or more offenses. Timofeev is now relying on a federal judge to pardon his case. He is also circulating an online petition to ask the state of Wisconsin to withdraw its appeal on his case.