06/15/2010 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unanimous Supreme Court Narrows Deportation Pipeline

In a hugely significant unanimous decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that a documented immigrant convicted of two minor drug-possession crimes will not face mandatory deportation. The ruling could drastically alter implementation of a controversial 1996 law that limited discretion for immigration judges and helped drive rising deportation numbers.

Plaintiff Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo had come to the U.S. in 1983, when he was just 5 years old, and had become a permanent resident. A lower court ruled that he was subject to mandatory deportation under the 1996 law as a result of two minor drug-possession offenses, one for marijuana and the other for a single tablet of Xanax, an anti-anxiety prescription drug often used recreationally. Monday's Supreme Court decision overturns that ruling and, in doing so, gives immigration judges the discretion to weigh the unique factors in many more deportation cases.

Carachuri-Rosendo, who is married to a U.S. citizen and has a U.S. citizen child, would have been one of close to 100,000 non-citizens deported annually as a result of criminal convictions (rather than for civil visa violations). The majority of those 100,000 are deported as a result of the 1996 immigration bill, which created a new category of crimes--called "aggravated felonies" in immigration nomenclature--that trigger mandatory deportation. Aggravated felonies, however, include convictions that are considered neither aggravated, nor felonies in normal criminal law. And it's believed that the bulk of those deported for them are permanent residents like Carachuri-Rosendo.

As I reported last year in the Colorlines investigation "Torn Apart":

Before 1996, immigrants convicted of crimes served their time in prison and then could petition a judge to let them stay in the U.S. In most cases, judges held the power to weigh the many factors in a person’s case, including how long a person had been in the country, if they had partners and children, if they were committed to turning their lives around. The system led to the deportation of tens of thousands of people each year, but for many, relief was available.

In 1996, immigration courts were suddenly stripped of the power to consider a person’s full situation. It no longer mattered that they had children or had been in the U.S. almost all their lives as legal permanent residents. For immigrants found guilty of crime, deportation became the mandatory result of their conviction.

Now, anyone who is not a citizen can be deported even if convicted of a relatively minor misdemeanor and even if it happened many years before. By broadening the number of crimes that trigger mandatory deportation—called “aggravated felonies” in immigration nomenclature—the 1996 laws has pushed hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have already served time in prison into detention and deportation.

Today's decision shrinks the breadth of the aggravated felony category and restores some discretion to immigration judges when facing cases involving minor crimes.

In his decision, retiring Justice John Paul Stevens writes, "We do not usually think of a 10-day sentence for the unauthorized possession of a trivial amount of a prescription drug as an 'aggrevated felony'."

At the very least, the decision brings some semblance of linguistic consistency to the law. More importantly, “Carachuri-Rosendo, and others in his position, may now seek cancellation of removal, and thereby avoid the harsh consequence of mandatory removal,” Justice Stevens wrote.

This post originally appeared at Colorlines