US Supreme Court Restricts Deportations of Immigrant Felons

Police officers stand in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC

Police officers stand in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC

Supreme Court nixed a provision of federal law Tuesday that requires immigrants who've been convicted of crimes to be deported.

The court's 5-4 decision - an unusual alignment in which new Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the four liberal justices - concerns a catchall provision of immigration law that defines what makes a crime violent.

The case the court ruled in involves James Dimaya, a native of the Philippines who came to the United States legally as a 13-year-old in 1992.

In 2007 and 2009, he pleaded no contest to charges of residential burglary in California, and an immigration judge determined that Dimaya should be deported because of his two state court convictions. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a non-citizen convicted of an aggravated felony is subject to deportation. An immigration judge determined that Dimaya was removable from the USA because of his two state court convictions.

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Gorsuch, in one of his first major breaks with fellow conservatives, joined the court's left-leaning four justices in upending that part of immigration law.

In court, arguing for the Trump administration, Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler said that when it comes to deportation, "I think it is important for the court to understand that immigration provisions and grounds for deportation are often written in very broad and general terms and given content by the executive branch in which Congress has vested authority".

In the federal criminal code, a "crime of violence" includes offenses in which force either was used or carried a "substantial risk" that it would be used. The appeals court based its ruling on a 2015 Supreme Court decision that struck down a similarly worded part of another federal law that imposes longer prison sentences on repeat criminals.

In this case, President Barack Obama's administration took the same position in the Supreme Court in defense of the challenged provision. The Supreme Court affirmed that ruling Tuesday. It initially heard arguments in January 2017 when the nine-seat court was one justice short, but decided in June after Gorsuch brought the court to full strength to have the case re-argued.

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