The Supreme Court has ruled to restrict mandatory deportation of immigrants convicted of some crimes, just as President Donald Trump’s administration is looking to increase them.
In a 5-4 ruling the Court says the wording of the statute requiring the removal of non-citizens who commit certain felonies is unlawfully vague, which that could limit the Trump administration’s ability to step up the removal of immigrants with criminal records.
In a first, Mr Trump’s appointee to the Court, conservative judge Neil Gorsuch, joined the court’s four liberal justices in siding with convicted California burglar James Garcia Dimaya, a legal immigrant from the Philippines.
The ruling concerns a provision of immigration law that defines a “crime of violence.” In the US federal criminal code, a “crime of violence” includes offences in which force either was used or carried a “substantial risk” that it would be used.
Such a conviction would make someone eligible for possible deportation and helps to speed up the process.
Both the administration of former President Barack Obama, and Mr Trump’s administration, have defended the principle – with Mr Trump pushing for more violent offenders to be removed from the country.
A federal appeals court in San Francisco previously struck down the provision as too vague, which increased the risk of arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement in violation of the US Constitution, and the Supreme Court agreed. The appeals court based its ruling on a Supreme Court decision from 2015 that voided a similarly-worded part of another law regarding longer custodial sentences for criminals.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the 20015 decision “tells us how to resolve this case.”
Dimaya came to the United States from the Philippines as a legal permanent resident in 1992 at age 13 and lived in the San Francisco Bay area. Federal authorities ordered Dimaya deported after he was convicted in two California home burglaries, in 2007 and 2009, though neither crime involved violence. He received a two-year prison sentence for each conviction.
The Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals refused to cancel his expulsion after it was asked for in 2010, because the relevant law defined burglary as a “crime of violence.”
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that the definition as applied to legal immigrants was so vague that it violated their rights to due process of law.
The appeals court relied on a decision that same year by the US Supreme Court, which found that a similar provision in a federal criminal sentencing law was overly broad.