Justices reject use of immigration law

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court rejected yesterday the Bush administration's aggressive use of the immigration laws to expel legal immigrants for minor drug crimes, a decision that could spare thousands from being deported.

Immigrant-rights lawyers said the resounding 8-1 decision will allow noncitizens who have a family, a job and otherwise clean record to appeal to immigration judges to stay in this country, despite a past drug conviction.


"This ensures these lawful residents will have their day in court," said Benita Jain, a lawyer for the New York State Defenders Association in Brooklyn.

Since 1996, the more than 12 million legal immigrants in the United States have been subject to mandatory deportation if they are guilty of an "aggravated felony," including a "drug trafficking crime." Four years ago, the government expanded the reach of this law to include state drug crimes that can result in a one-year jail sentence, even if the offense is simple drug possession.


In yesterday's decision, the high court said that broad interpretation ignored the plain words of the law. Citing Alice in Wonderland and noting Humpty Dumpty's use of words to mean whatever he wanted them to mean, the justices said it did not make sense to interpret the words "aggravated felony" and "drug trafficking crime" to mean simple drug possession.

Justice David H. Souter, who wrote the opinion, said the government's interpretation was incoherent and is "just what the English language tells us not to expect, and that result makes us very wary of the government's position."

In the case, Lopez v. Gonzales, the court said the automatic deportation rule is triggered only by drug offenses that are the equivalent of drug crimes "punishable as a felony under federal law."

It's unclear how many legal immigrants have been deported for minor drug crimes. Last year, the government said 77,000 legal immigrants were deported because they had criminal records, about 10 percent of which involved drug crimes.

Between mid-1997 and May 2006, federal officials used the aggravated felony provisions to deport an estimated 156,713 people through court proceedings, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which is associated with Syracuse University. Of that number, a third had a criminal conviction for a controlled substance.

Immigrant-rights advocates say the stepped-up enforcement has collared many legal residents who are generally law-abiding and often well-established in their adopted communities.

The decision reopened the case of Jose Antonio Lopez, an immigrant from Mexico who had lived as a permanent resident of South Dakota since 1990. He was married, has two children and had owned a grocery store.

In 1997, he was charged with aiding a person in obtaining cocaine, and later pleaded guilty to drug possession. This was a felony in South Dakota, but a misdemeanor under federal law. After serving 15 months in prison, Lopez was released, but U.S. immigration authorities deported him to Mexico.


His lawyer, Patricia G. Mattos of St. Paul, Minn., said she told Lopez yesterday of the decision and his right to file a request to cancel his removal. "He was speechless. It was very emotional. He was very pleased the system had worked in the United States, and that he will have his day in court," she said.

The Washington Legal Foundation, which had supported the government's view, called the ruling a disappointment. Lopez was initially charged with more serious drug crimes, said Richard Samp, the group's general counsel. "One would hope that immigration judges will grant 'cancellation of removal' to aliens convicted of felonies only in the rarest of circumstances," he said.

The 1996 immigration law remains controversial because it requires a mandatory deportation for certain offenses, regardless of the circumstances. In the Lopez case, immigrant-rights lawyers cited examples of U.S. military veterans who had fought in the Persian Gulf War, as well as long-time business owners who faced deportation because of a drug crime.

Proponents of the law said it makes clear that aliens who commit crimes in the United States forfeit their right to be here. Critics say that mandatory deportation is too severe a punishment for some non-violent crimes.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.