WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the White House'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 non-citizens who have 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.
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 in jail, even if the offense is simple drug possession.
In Tuesday's decision, the court said that broad interpretation ignored the plain words of the law. Noting Humpty Dumpty's use of words to mean whatever he wanted them to mean in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, 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.
The court 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."
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 kids and had owned a store.
The 1996 immigration law remains controversial, because it requires a mandatory deportation for certain offenses, regardless of circumstances.
The ruling does not shield immigrants who commit minor drug crimes from being deported in all instances. However, without the trigger of the automatic deportation rule, they can seek relief from an immigration judge.