The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the Bush administration's use of immigration laws to expel legal immigrants for minor drug crimes, a decision that could spare thousands from being deported.
Immigrants' rights lawyers said the resounding 8-1 decision would allow noncitizens who have families, jobs and otherwise clean records to appeal to immigration judges to stay in this country, despite a past drug conviction.
Since 1996, the more than 12-million legal immigrants in the United States have been subject to mandatory deportation if they are guilty of an "aggravated felony," including a "drug trafficking crime." Four years ago, the government expanded the reach of this law to include state drug crimes that can result in one year in jail, even if the offense is simple drug possession.
In Tuesday's decision, the high court said that broad interpretation ignored the plain words of the law. The justices said it did not make sense to interpret the words "aggravated felony" and "drug trafficking crime" to mean simple drug possession.
Justice David Souter, who wrote the opinion, said the government's interpretation was incoherent.
In the case, Lopez vs. Gonzales, the court said the automatic deportation rule should be triggered only by drug offenses that are the equivalent of drug crimes "punishable as a felony under federal law."
The Supreme Court justices did not focus on whether it was fair to deport longtime legal immigrants for a low-level drug offense. Instead, they parsed the words in the federal law.
Souter said "normal English usage" would suggest that Congress meant to punish and deport those who sold drugs, not those who simply possessed them.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the law also makes reference to "any felony," which he said could include state and federal drug offenses that carry that label.
The ruling does not shield immigrants who commit minor drug crimes from being deported in all instances. However, without the trigger of the automatic deportation rule, they can seek relief from an immigration judge.