Deported for drug charge, one man seeks U.S. reentry after Blake decision

The WA Supreme Court deemed the state’s drug statute unconstitutional. For people deported on drug charges, that could open new possibilities.

Washington state’s Supreme Court Building, also known as the Temple of Justice, photographed Oct. 21, 2020, in Olympia. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

Before he was deported to Korea, John had visited there only once. He could understand some of the language from listening to his parents while growing up, but he wasn’t fluent or even conversational. 

He has lived in Korea now for more than 20 years, not once returning to Washington state, where much of his family remains. He missed his father’s death and funeral. He missed his daughter’s wedding and still hasn’t met her husband in person.

Underpinning his exile is a single drug charge and the related charges that followed, all stemming from his now decades-gone addiction to methamphetamine. For years John had wondered if he could ever return to the U.S., scouring each change in immigration policy, each new federal administration’s rules. He would only ever hit dead ends.

But now, thanks to the landmark Blake decision from the Washington Supreme Court that voided the state’s drug statute, John has begun to allow himself the fantasy of returning to his childhood home — not to live, but to visit the site where his father’s ashes were scattered, to meet his son-in-law and to care for his aging mother.

“I just want to be able to go without having any problems with government,” he said. “That's my goal.”

John, whose real name Crosscut is not using as he pursues legal relief from his past charges, exemplifies the sheer magnitude of the Blake decison’s implications. By finding the state statute that criminalized drug possession to be unconstitutional — because it did not require prosecutors to prove intent — the state’s highest court stripped the law of its teeth. More than that, the decision meant all past convictions under that law dating back to the 1970s deserved reconsideration as well.

The Washington Legislature recently passed a law, making drug possession a misdemeanor. It’s awaiting a signature from Gov. Jay Inslee. But, if signed, that statute cannot be applied retroactively, meaning that, for those convicted of drug possession, Blake’s impact is permanent.

For John, that could mean his past charges will vanish.

Blake “definitely opens the doors for people who have orders of removal or who have been removed from the country,” said Kevin Hollinz, a staff attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

John’s family moved from Korea to Hawaii to Vancouver, Washington, in the early 1970s, when he was a baby.

Growing up, said John, no one in his family sought citizenship because it didn’t feel important. “It wasn't that big of a deal for people because I was a permanent resident,” he said over the phone from Korea. As legal residents, the family had only one restriction in their daily lives — they couldn’t vote. “Even my parents didn't get citizenship until after I had got deported,” he said.

Methamphetamine was abundant in Vancouver in the early 1990s, said John. He met a woman, with whom he had his two children, and the two of them “fell in with a bad crowd” and began using together.

For all the talk today about treating addiction as an issue of public health, that was not true at the time.

“I tried to get into treatment, but back then, treatment wasn't free and there were no options for someone that didn't have money to go to treatment,” he said. “They weren't picking people up, offering treatment; they were basically just throwing us in jail.”

After his first arrest, John was placed on probation. He didn’t have anywhere to live, so he stayed in his girlfriend’s basement apartment with their two children. While he was there, his probation officer visited one day and found a gun in the apartment. Gun possession was illegal for both him and his girlfriend as a result of their past drug convictions. John insists the gun was not his, but he was told that either he or his girlfriend had to take the blame. Believing it could be sorted out later and fearful his children would be placed into foster care, John agreed to take the blame.

What followed were months and then years of incarceration for John, always in a cloud of uncertainty, not knowing what he was waiting for in the judicial process. He first spent six months in the local jail. Then he was pulled from the jail, driven north to Seattle and placed in an immigration jail.

John would spend two years in the jail, waiting. As the days and months ticked by, the time behind bars wore John down. Immigration staff told him at one point that, if he didn’t sign his own deportation papers, he’d wait in the jail until he “turned gray.”

And so, just before the year 2000, John signed his own papers of removal. His lawyer told him he could still stand a chance of fighting his case, but John was tired. Guards drove him to the airport, where a plane waited to take him to Korea, the country where he was born but had never lived.

There was a moment after his deportation when John hoped that he’d feel at ease in Korea for the first time in his life.

“I've always felt like an outsider, no matter where I've gone,” he said. “I kind of thought, when I got to Korea, that now that I'm with my countrymen I wouldn't feel like an outsider. But even here I'm an outsider because I'm not really Korean.”

John settled in better than most. Having gone through withdrawals in jail, he no longer used drugs. He found a job teaching English and quickly met the woman who would later become his wife. For the past six years, he has run his own import-export business. He speaks Korean now, although still struggles with reading and writing.

But even as he set down roots, his family remained on the other side of the planet. When his father died, he asked to be allowed to visit and was told no. Same for his daughter’s wedding. His mother is in her 70s now and still struggles with American bureaucracy.

“I missed their whole life,” he said of his children.

John’s attorney, Kelly Vomacka, said she’s optimistic they can find a path for him to return. The drug charges should be easily dismissed as a result of Blake, she said, and she’s been in contact with the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

More challenging will be the firearms charge. As Vomacka sees it, that too should be wiped away. Without the original drug charge, he never would have fallen into trouble for the gun. But she also acknowledged: “The gun statute is still perfectly constitutional. It's just that the only reason the gun was illegal was because he had the prior drug charge.”

Hollinz of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said immigration lawyers are still wrapping their heads around what Blake means for people who have gone through or are facing deportation.

“On the immigration law listserv there’s a lot of people trying to learn about Blake and figure out what it means for their clients and whether there’s going to be any sort of county-coordinated efforts to vacate the convictions en masse or if they’ll have to go one by one to the court,” he said.

In general, though, Hollinz said Blake has the potential to be a positive thing in the world of immigration.

For people with substance use disorders, “what you want is stability and you want someone to be able to move near their family and have access to resources,” he said. “Immigration laws treat just the mere possession of substances so harshly. To rip people away from their families  and send them to countries where they perhaps haven't even lived as adults is just extraordinarily harsh and ineffective.”

When John first read about Blake, he felt warm inside — the first glimmer of hope in many years. But he’s tempering his expectations.

“If you would have asked me, like, 10 years ago or maybe even 15 years ago, that would probably have been the only thing that's on my mind,” he said. “But after so many years, you just kind of give up. So I guess you can always dream about going back or dream about one day having your charges cleared or whatever, but if you keep on only worrying about that, then your life is gonna get stuck and I gave up on it. After a while, I just got fed up with it.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.