Landmark Supreme Court ruling gives due process to immigrants facing detention

From the Restore Fairness blog.

Martin Escobar was a lawful permanent resident who had lived in the United States for 30 years. He lived in Chicago, working for a tree care company and supporting his wife, four children and grandchildren, putting them through school and college. In the 1990’s, he plead guilty to two drug possession convictions, but never served any time in jail for these minor misdemeanors. 8 years later, an immigration judge ordered him deported on the basis on these convictions. Their family has been divided since then as Escobar and his wife left for Mexico, leaving their children behind in the U.S.

Due to immigration laws laid down in 1996, Escobar’s very minor drug offenses amounted to an “aggravated felony,” forcing the judge to deport him without being able to consider the individual circumstances of the case. Under harsh immigration laws passed in 1996, a whole range of convictions constitute “aggravated felonies” which trigger automatic deportation, but as in Escobar’s case, many of these convictions are neither aggravated nor felonies. Worse, the laws eliminated important legal rights that previously enabled an immigration judge to look at individual circumstances of each case, including the type of convictions, their history and family ties and how long ago the conviction occurred, thereby denying due process and fairness to hundreds and thousands of people deported for life for convictions ranging from shoplifting to possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In a landmark decision this Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that immigrants who are here legally in the United States cannot be automatically deported for minor drug offenses, and therefore can have an immigration judge look at their circumstances before being sentenced to permanent exile. The ruling comes in response to Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo’s case, a permanent resident of the United States who had lived here since he was 5. In 2004, Jose faced mandatory deportation for carrying a single Xanax tablet without prescription. Although it was a minor offense, being his second one, it counted as an “aggravated felony” and caused him to face deportation.

Writing about his case, Justice Stevens wrote-

(a) 10-day sentence for the unauthorized possession of a trivial amount of a prescription drug is at odds with the ordinary meaning of aggravated felony…Carachuri-Rosendo, and others in his position, may now seek cancellation of removal and thereby avoid the harsh consequence of mandatory removal. (But) any relief he may obtain depends upon the discretion of the attorney general.

Speaking about the ruling, Chuck Roth, director of litigation for Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) said-

The Supreme Court’s decision is a commonsense interpretation of the law that protects fundamental fairness for immigrants. All drug offenses subject a person to potential deportation, but this decision gives our clients a chance to fight their cases, to prove that they are rehabilitated and that their presence here is a net benefit to the country and to their families.

This ruling will impact the lives of many legal residents like Escobar, who have been labeled as “aggravated felons” and separated from their lives and families for minor offenses. It is a positive step toward fixing our country’s unfair immigration laws, and reinforces the importance of a fair day in court. Tearing families apart by deporting people who are not threats to our communities is deeply unfair and this ruling remedies this to some extent.

Speaking from Morelos, Mexico, about 100 miles south of Mexico City, Martin Escobar told Deportation Nation that “It would make me happy if I could return to Chicago. All my family is in the United States. They were born there, and now the only person who is here is myself.”

The Carachuri-Rosendo case is the most recent in a number of challenges to the harsh 1996 amendments and given that the rate of deportations is at its highest ever, it goes some way in restoring some degree of due process and fairness to the system.

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Thank you, Justice Stevens

While Joe Biden was taking the oath of office yesterday, I was struck by how healthy Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens looked and sounded. The man is 88 years old, and not only does he look 15 years younger, he is still able to do an intellectually demanding job well.

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Imagine the harm that could have been done if George Bush had been able to name another justice of the Scalia, Thomas, Roberts or Alito variety.

President Gerald Ford nominated Stevens for the Supreme Court in 1975. That has to be one of the best things Ford ever did for this country.

Apparently Stevens has no immediate plans to step down and has hired clerks for the Supreme Court's 2009 session. I learned from his wikipedia entry that if Stevens continues to serve through February 2011, he will become the oldest justice in the history of the Supreme Court (Oliver Wendell Holmes currently holds the record). If Stevens serves until July 15, 2012, he would become the justice to have served on the high court for the longest time (surpassing William O. Douglas).

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