A minor drug offense isn't grounds for the automatic removal of otherwise law-abiding legal immigrants from the United States, the justices ruled unanimously.
WASHINGTON - Immigrants convicted of minor drug offenses should not face automatic deportation, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday, a decision that could allow thousands of legal immigrants the chance to argue for leniency from immigration judges.
In a 9-0 decision, the court overruled the legal interpretations of the federal government and a lower appeals court and said Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo should have had a chance to make his case for staying in the country.
Carachuri-Rosendo, a legal resident who had lived in the United States since he was 5, was deported to his native Mexico after being convicted of possessing a single tablet of Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, and serving a 10-day sentence. He had been convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana a year earlier and received a 20-day sentence.
Both an immigration judge and a U.S. court of appeals ordered him to be deported because they said his second drug-possession conviction qualified as an "aggravated felony," which is grounds for deportation under a 1996 federal law intended to rid the nation of immigrants who were criminals.
But in the opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, the high court said that was not what Congress had in mind when it passed the law. "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.
The problem is Congress did not carefully define "aggravated felony," and 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 some judges have gone too far.
Manuel Vargas, senior counsel for the Immigrant Defense Project, said that would mean immigrants could ask a judge to consider factors such as their length of time in this country, military service, and family and community ties. Illegal immigrants would still face virtually automatic deportation, he said.
Carachuri-Rosendo, who is in his early 30s, was deported even though his common-law wife, four children and other family members are U.S. citizens. The case is Carachuri-Rosendo vs. Holder.
The McClatchy News Service contributed to this report