The Supreme Court blocked the government Monday from routinely deporting legal immigrants for minor drug possession convictions, a decision that immigrant-rights lawyers said will spare tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding residents from being sent out of this country.
In a 9-0 decision, the justices said a Texas man who had pled guilty at different times to having a marijuana cigarette and a single Xanax pill, an anti-anxiety drug, had been wrongfully deported.
Jose Carachuri-Rosendo was taken into federal custody after he pled no contest to having the Xanax pill without a prescription. Both an immigration judge and the U.S. court of appeals in New Orleans ruled he must be deported because his second drug possession conviction qualified as an "aggravated felony."
His case illustrated the potentially harsh impact of a 1996 federal law that was intended to rid the nation of immigrants who were criminals and violent offenders. Previously immigrants could ask for leniency if they had a job, a family or other ties in this country.
The new law, by contrast, required the deportation of any non-citizen convicted of an "aggravated felony."
But Congress did not carefully define this term. Since then, immigration judges have been deciding which crimes fit the definition.
Monday's ruling marks the third time in six years that the Supreme Court has intervened and ruled that these judges have gone too far.
Justice John Paul Stevens said the government's view defies common sense. "We do not usually think of a 10-day sentence for the unauthorized possession of a trivial amount of a prescription drug as an 'aggravated felony'," he wrote.
Because of its strict wording, the 1996 law had required deportation even for legal residents who have lived in the United States for decades and served in the U.S. military. And despite the high court's ruling, immigrants convicted of drug charges still could be deported.
They will, however, have a chance to seek leniency before an immigration judge.
"Today's ruling will affect tens of thousands of immigrants, but it is hard to get a specific number," said Benita Jain, co-director of the Immigrant Defense Project in New York.
In 2009, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 139,188 so-called "criminal aliens," but this number included both lawful residents and illegal immigrants, officials said.
The U.S. appeals court in New Orleans and Chicago were among those that said a second drug possession conviction triggered the automatic-deportation rule. Had the Supreme Court agreed with that view, it would have allowed the government to move forward with thousands of deportations, immigration experts said.
Peter Spiro, a Temple University Law Professor and former clerk at the high court, said the justices acted after waiting in vain for Congress to fix the 1996 law.
"This is another in a long line of cases in which the Court is pushing back," he said. "They are giving very clear cues they want this law defined more narrowly."
Six years ago, the court rejected the Bush administration's view that a drunk driving conviction amounted to an aggravated felony. Four years ago, the court in an 8-1 decision rejected deportation for a South Dakota man who pled guilty to cocaine possession -- a felony under state law, but a misdemeanor under federal law.
In its decision, the high court said a second drug possession conviction was not an aggravated felony even if it was a repeat offense. Stevens said the common-sense use of the words "aggravated" and "felony" refer to a serious or violent crime that would be punished by more than a year in prison.
"Congress, like 'Humpty Dumpty', has the power to give words unorthodox meanings," he said, but there is no evidence that Congress meant to make minor drug offenses into aggravated felonies. He noted that drug trafficking does qualify as a felony requiring deportation.
Carachuri-Rosendo, 32, was born in Mexico and came to Texas with his parents when he was five. He became a lawful permanent resident, worked as a carpet installer, and has a wife and four children.
He served 20 days in jail for a misdemeanor marijuana charge. He spent 10 days in county jail for the Xanax pill before he was taken into federal custody and deported to Mexico.
Under Monday's ruling, he can seek to return.
Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder