Legislators look at changing definition of year to prevent deportation

Senate committee unanimously passes proposal; full Senate vote slated for March 28

By: - March 27, 2023 3:15 am

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agent is shown detaining an immigrant in California in this 2015 photo. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Optimism prevailed among immigrant rights advocates after the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill March 21 removing one day off the definition of a year to protect noncitizens from deportation.

“I’m really hopeful in light of the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any formal opposition,” Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said. “I’m feeling much more confident that the House will take positive action.” 

S685, introduced by Sen. Jonathon Acosta, of Central Falls, would change the definition of a year under Rhode Island criminal law from 365 days to 364 in misdemeanor cases. Under federal immigration law, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor that could face a penalty of a year or more incarceration would flag someone for removal from the United States. It passed the full Senate unanimously in 2021 and 2022. The House never took up the measures.

The full Senate will take up the measure on Tuesday, March 28. A companion House bill, H5361, sponsored by Rep. Leonela Felix, of Pawtucket, was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 3. No hearing has yet been scheduled.

“Families live in constant fear of deportation,” Jonathan Dejesus, policy associate and community organizer at Progreso Latino, Inc., testified before the committee. “People’s families here can be deported for something minor like shoplifting or vandalism. One day would make a huge difference to them.

Seven states already define a year for the purposes of sentencing as 364 days, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative group advocating for policies that would limit immigration. The states are California, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, and New York.

It doesn’t matter how long a misdemeanor offender is sentenced, Brown said. What matters is that the maximum prison sentence currently spelled out in state law is a year or more, which could subject offenders to deportation.

“They can get one day, no time at all, a suspended sentence,” Brown said. “It’s the mere fact that the offense itself is punishable with a year in jail that knocks people into this terrible deportation machine.

“They could be lawful residents in this country for 20 to 30 years, that is irrelevant under federal immigration laws,” he continued. “That is irrelevant if they happen to plead to some very minor offenses.”

He added that there does not appear to be any formal opposition to the bill.

“Nobody has testified against the bill in the last two years,” Brown said. “So we remain puzzled as to why it remains hung up.” 

Noncitizens would not be the only ones to benefit if the proposal becomes law, said Hector Perez-Aponte, coordinator of the Immigrant Coalition of Rhode Island.

“It’s primarily to protect all Rhode Islanders,” Perez-Aponte said. Folks who are residents here are Rhode Islanders.”



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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.