Supreme Court Eases Deportation of Offending Immigrants

The Supreme Court on Thursday enabled the deportation of immigrants who have committed state crimes.

In the 5-3 ruling, Justice Elena Kagan clarified that immigrants can qualify for removal from the U.S. even if they lack an element in corresponding federal laws that trigger deportation. The decision is based on, and rejects, claims by a Dominican electrician convicted of attempted arson that the deportation trigger was limited to crimes related to interstate commerce and did not include state crimes.

The electrician is George Luna, who a New York state court sentenced to a day in jail and five years’ probation for a 1999 third-degree attempted-arson conviction. Immigration officials discovered the conviction seven years later, when Mr. Luna was returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic, and an immigration judge found him subject to the removal provisions—a decision later upheld by a federal appeals court in New York.

The Immigration and Nationality Act lists around 80 “aggravated felonies” that justify expediting deportation proceedings, whether it was a conviction under federal law or corresponding state or foreign laws. Usually, qualifying state laws require a link to interstate commerce in order to expedite proceedings, a common requirement for federal laws to apply.

Mr. Luna, a permanent U.S. resident who has lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., since arriving at age 9, argued the state crime wasn’t covered by the deportation provisions because, unlike the federal arson statute, New York law wasn’t limited to buildings and vehicles related to “interstate or foreign commerce.”

Justice Elena Kagan rejected the interpretation, writing “The whole point [of the deportation provision] is to make clear that a listed offense should lead to swift removal, no matter whether it violates federal, state or foreign law.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, writing “On the majority’s reading, longtime legal permanent residents with convictions for minor state offenses are foreclosed from even appealing to the mercy of the Attorney General.”

Nonetheless, only Justice Thomas and Breyer signed with Sotomayor, while Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Alito voted with Kagan.