High court: Deportation for drugs isn't automatic
The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the Bush administration's aggressive use of immigration laws to expel legal immigrants for minor drug...
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the Bush administration's aggressive use of immigration laws to expel legal immigrants for minor drug crimes, a decision that could spare thousands from being deported.
Immigrants'-rights lawyers said the 8-1 decision would allow noncitizens who have families, jobs and otherwise clean records 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 one year in jail.
In Tuesday's decision, the high court said that broad interpretation ignored the plain words of the law, and that it did not make sense to apply the words "aggravated felony" and "drug-trafficking crime" to simple drug possession, which is a misdemeanor under federal law.
Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, said the automatic deportation rule should be triggered only by drug offenses that are the equivalent of drug crimes "punishable as a felony under federal law."
Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter.
The decision reopened the case of Jose Antonio Lopez, an immigrant from Mexico who had lived as a permanent resident in South Dakota since 1990. He was married 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.
The ruling does not shield immigrants who commit minor drug crimes from being deported in all instances. However, they can seek relief from an immigration judge.
His lawyer, Patricia Mattos of St. Paul, Minn., said Tuesday that she had told Lopez of the decision and that he could now ask an immigration judge to decide whether he may remain in the country. "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 initially was 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.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.