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US Supreme Court Ends Vague Basis for Deportation

Decision Limits Some Unfair Deportations but Harsh Laws Remain

Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

The Supreme Court of the United States took a small step this week towards a fairer immigration system, eliminating one particularly troubling legal provision under which immigrants can be deported.

On Tuesday, the court struck down one part of the “aggravated felony” definition in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which was an vague catch-all basis for deportation of some immigrants on criminal grounds.

The provision struck down vaguely defines a “crime of violence” and is just one of 35 provisions that allow for deportations after conviction for an “aggravated felony.” That still leaves 34 types of crime that can trigger deportation including rape, murder, forgery, tax evasion, and trafficking in vehicles.

Tuesday's decision involved the deportation of James Dimaya, a Philippines native who legally immigrated to the US when he was 13. He was convicted of two charges of burglary in California, prompting the government to initiate deportation proceedings.

An immigrant being deported as an “aggravated felon” faces nearly mandatory deportation and cannot defend on the basis of being a legal permanent resident, strong family ties, or a lengthy residence in the US. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her opinion for the court, deportation is "a virtual certainty" for people convicted of aggravated felonies. Though this was not the basis for the Court’s decision, the mandatory nature of these deportations without regard to an immigrant’s connections to the US runs contrary to human rights law.

Following the ruling, President Trump tweeted that Congress must “pass a legislative fix to ensure violent criminal aliens can be removed from our society.” Neither President Trump nor a similar statement issued by DHS acknowledge the wide range of bases for deportation on criminal grounds that remain in place.

Human Rights Watch has long documented how the US immigration deportation system leads to arbitrary deportations often void of due process, and without weighing factors such as being the parent of a US citizen child. These deportations are especially harsh for long-term residents who are being removed and separated from their families after criminal convictions, including for relatively minor crimes.

While the Supreme Court’s ruling brings the US one small  step closer to a system that treats immigrants fairly, harmful deportations of deeply rooted immigrants will continue until Congress reforms laws that strike a better balance between  the often profound human rights impacts of removal , and the US government’s interest in deporting a person. 

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