Court Ruling on Filipino Case Could Prevent Removal of Thousands

Court Ruling on Filipino Case Could Prevent Removal of Thousands

By: Reuben S. Seguritan

April 18, 2018


On April 17, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the definition of “crimes of violence” in the Immigration and Nationality Act was unconstitutionally vague. In this decision penned by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court in effect stopped the deportation of the Filipino defendant.

The defendant, James Garcia Dimaya, was admitted to the United States in 1992 when he was 13 as a lawful permanent resident. In 2007 and 2009, he pleaded no contest to charges of residential burglary, which are first-degree burglary crimes in California.

In 2010, the Obama administration brought removal proceedings against Dimaya. The immigration judge determined that Dimaya was removable from the United States because of his two state court convictions of first-degree burglary crimes. The court held that the convictions qualified for an “aggravated felony” under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which authorizes removal of non-citizens who have been convicted of some violent crimes and defined aggravated felony to include “crimes of violence.”

Lawyers for Dimaya appealed the removal arguing that their client never had fair notice that his crimes would result in deportation. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dimaya and stated that the definition of “crime of violence” was unconstitutionally vague.

On appeal by the government to the United States Supreme Court, the case was first argued in January 2017 when there were only 8 members of the Supreme Court because of the untimely death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The Justices were deadlocked at 4 to 4. The case was reargued in October 2017 after Justice Gorsuch was appointed by President Donald Trump.

Dimaya’s lawyers argued that the criminal vagueness standard applies in the deportation context, even though immigration cases are considered civil cases. They cited the Jordan vs. De George case decided in 1951, in which the Supreme Court applied the criminal vagueness standard to a deportation statute because of the grave nature of deportation.

The 5-4 decision cited the 2015 Supreme Court case of Johnson v. United States in which a similar criminal law was held unconstitutionally vague. The “void-for-vagueness doctrine” guarantees that ordinary people have fair no­tice of the conduct a statute proscribes.

The Supreme Court took particular note of the fact that under the statute, cases concerning “crimes of violence” wouldn’t be eligible for discretion, meaning a judge or officials couldn’t even decide in special cases to make an exception.

The ruling was applauded by immigration law rights groups as a benefit to lawful permanent residents and other immigrants who live in the United States legally and have committed crimes. The Supreme Court’s ruling limits the types of crimes that could be the basis for deportation. This means that low-level offenses committed by lawful permanent residents, even if they would qualify as aggravated felonies, would not automatically mean mandatory deportation. The lawful permanent resident can argue that he should not be deported.

As expected, the Trump administration was deeply dissatisfied with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Tyler Houlton, the spokesman for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said, “By preventing the federal government from removing known criminal aliens, it allows our nation to be a safe haven for criminals.” Furthermore, the Justice Department said the decision means that there should be more law enforcement powers. They called on Congress to close criminal alien loopholes to ensure that criminal aliens who commit crimes are not able to avoid deportation when they break the laws of the United States.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court’s decision means that the grounds and reasons for an immigrant to be deported should be absolutely clear. The mere fact that the lawful permanent resident committed a low-level crime is not a ground for his automatic deportation.