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Israeli pot agronomist working in Nevada ordered out of US

Updated February 11, 2018 - 9:51 pm

Esther Abta believes her husband’s green card denial was an honest mistake.

“I have to say that this is part of God’s plan and this has only been an opportunity to increase my emunah,” the 36-year-old orthodox Jewish woman said recently at a Las Vegas coffee shop, using the Hebrew word for “faith.”

Mistake or not, Abta’s Israeli husband, Shimon, is now living with family back in his homeland after being deemed a drug trafficker for his work as an agronomist observing Nevada’s medical marijuana industry. And her emunah is being further tested as she waits to see if U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will grant him re-entry to the U.S.

Shimon said he feels like a victim caught between federal law, which classifies marijuana as an illegal Schedule 1 drug, and Nevada law, which has legalized the drug for medicinal and recreational use.

“So the meaning of that is all the people that work in the cannabis industry, they are a trafficker by federal law, they are a criminal by federal law and they have nothing to protect them,” the 33-year-old said via Skype from his family’s home east of Tel Aviv.

Married, then separated

After several months of traveling back-and-forth for Tikun Olam, Israel’s first medical marijuana supplier, Shimon met Esther, a U.S. citizen, in Las Vegas. They married on Jan. 3, 2017, after a few months of dating. Shimon called their love big and true.

The couple bought a home in Summerlin, and Shimon brought his German Shepherd, Hero, to join them. They also got involved in the local Jewish community and planned to start a family.

After they married, Esther, who works as an opioid addiction counselor and is finishing an online master’s degree in social work through Arizona State University, sponsored her husband for a green card. His application seemed to be moving along, with Shimon getting help from a woman whom he believed to be an attorney that was recommended by a friend.

Shimon was required to submit a government-issued identification card from Nevada, but he didn’t have a driver’s license or any other official state document. Instead, at his adviser’s urging, he submitted an identification card from CWNevada, a local cannabis distributor, which enabled him to enter the company’s facilities so he could observe the cultivation process.

When he submitted the ID, Shimon Abta didn’t think twice — after all, the work was legal in Nevada.

“But I’m smart after that,” he joked during the call from Israel.

The Abtas’ new attorney, Ed Prudhomme, hasn’t handled a marijuana-related immigration case in half a century of work. He said he would’ve advised against submitting the card, because of the differing state and federal laws.

“This is one of the effects of the problem,” Prudhomme said.

The Abtas met with an immigration officer on Dec. 15 for Shimon’s green card interview, during which he discussed his line of work, though by that time he had been laid off.

Both husband and wife think the officer misunderstood Shimon, who has a rather pronounced Israeli accent.

Prudhomme has a different view.

“I think the officer was either undertrained” or was told by a higher authority to deny Shimon’s application, he said.

‘Controlled substance trafficker’

Five days later, on Dec. 20, Shimon received a letter denying his application on grounds of being a “controlled substance trafficker” and was instructed to report to McCarran International Airport the morning of Jan. 8. When he did, he was told he would have to leave the country that afternoon.

A USCIS spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on individual cases.

Now, all Shimon can do is wait to see whether the federal government will grant a motion to reopen his case. Prudhomme said he plans to point out that Shimon didn’t work for CWNevada and only visited the facility — an important distinction.

There’s no way of knowing how long the process may take, but Prudhomme said he’s ready to follow the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if it comes to that.

In the meantime, the Abtas reached out to several state and local officials and heard back from representatives for Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., both of whom said they’d look into the case.

Shimon just wants his name cleared — agronomy and drug trafficking aren’t synonymous, he says — and to be reunited with his wife. Esther misses everything about her husband, she said, joking that she’s used to Shimon taking care of the dishes at home.

Shimon appeared with Prudhomme at McCarran International Airport on Jan. 8. He had one-way ticket to Israel at 4:30 p.m., and was told he would face deportation if he didn’t leave the U.S. voluntarily.

While the Abtas await answers from the U.S., they’re also calculating the cost to move their lives to Israel.

“I mean, Hashem, (God) he does this a lot where you think something is so awful and it turns out to be the best thing that ever happened in your life,” Esther Abta said. “When he boarded the plane, we said both of us, together, ‘Todah rabah, Hashem.’” Thank you, God.

Contact Jessie Bekker at jbekker@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4563. Follow @jessiebekks on Twitter.

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