"Justice for All" Includes Legal Immigrants Facing Deportation, Supreme Court Rules

June 25, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK-In a ringing endorsement of 'justice for all,' the U.S. Supreme Court today affirmed the right of legal immigrants to have their cases reviewed by a court before facing deportation and said that a 1996 law making deportation automatic for an expanded group of immigrants could not be applied retroactively.

"Today's ruling preserves the fundamental principle that no matter who you are, you are entitled to your day in court under our system of justice," said Lucas Guttentag, Director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, who argued the matter before the Justices in April.

"In particular, this ruling ends the nightmare of thousands of immigrant families who were facing deportation of loved ones, in many cases for minor crimes that were committed many years ago and that did not even include jail time," he added.

The case arose out of 1996 anti-immigrant laws that required the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to deport even lawful permanent residents who committed minor criminal offenses, many of which carried no jail time and for which they had long ago paid their debt to society.

In some cases, an immigrant may have pleaded guilty to a crime for which he was advised there would be no adverse immigration consequences.

The Attorney General argued that the 1996 laws stripped federal courts of their powers to review such cases and said that the laws could be applied retroactively.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court today rejected that view.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said that legal immigrants who pleaded guilty under the old law "almost certainly relied" on their right to a court review in deciding whether to forgo their right to a trial. The "elimination of any possibility of ... relief ... has an obvious and severe retroactive effect," he wrote.

While the Supreme Court today acted to ameliorate some of the harshest elements of the 1996 anti-immigration legislation, the ACLU said that Congress now needs to finish the job.

"Today's decision rejects the Attorney General's harsh interpretation of the 1996 laws but does not address other equally harsh provisions that Congress should now reconsider," said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel.

"These include mandatory detention of lawful permanent residents and restoring discretion to immigration judges for cases in the future," he added.

The cases are Calcano-Martinez v. INS, No. 00-1011, and INS v. St. Cyr, No. 00-767.

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