This week the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases that pose the question of whether noncitizens should be afforded at least some of the due process of law that Americans take for granted. The answer in both cases should be a resounding yes.
On Monday, the justices considered whether a Filipino legal immigrant convicted of two home burglaries in California could be deported even if the wording of the federal law used to determine whether he could be removed from the U.S. was so unconstitutionally vague that it could not be enforced in a criminal court. On Tuesday, lawyers for a group of noncitizens detained by immigration authorities asked the court to rule that detainees are entitled to a bond hearing after six months of confinement.
Although the circumstances and legal issues in the two cases differ, the common denominator is the importance of affording due process to noncitizens.
James Garcia Dimaya, who was admitted to the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident at the age of 13, pleaded no contest in 2007 and 2009 to two charges of residential burglary. Concluding that one of the convictions was an "aggravated felony," the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed with the Homeland Security Department that Dimaya should be deported.
But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision. It said the definition of "aggravated felony" in immigration law incorporated a definition of "crime of violence" that was similar to language in a different law the Supreme Court had concluded in 2015 was too vague to be constitutional.
At Monday's oral argument, Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler said the law at issue in Dimaya's case didn't suffer from the same vagueness problem. But even if it did, Kneedler told the court, "immigration is distinctive" and deportation "is not punishment for [a] past offense." In other words, even if the law was too vague to be used for the purposes of criminal punishment, it could still be used for the purposes of deportation.
This brought a devastating rejoinder from Justice Neil Gorsuch. "I can easily imagine a misdemeanant who may be convicted of a crime for which the sentence is six months in jail or a $100 fine, and he wouldn't trade places in the world for someone who is deported," Gorsuch said. He questioned the soundness of the "line that we've drawn in the past" between criminal punishment and civil penalties such as deportation.
We agree. If the court decides that the wording of the law that triggered Dimaya's removal order was unconstitutionally vague, he should be entitled to relief. A law that is too vague to justify a criminal sentence shouldn't be a good enough reason to expel someone from the country.
In the case argued Tuesday, a class-action lawsuit, noncitizens detained by immigration authorities asked the court to rule that they should receive bond hearings if their detention lasts for six months. The lead plaintiff is Alejandro Rodriguez, who grew up in Los Angeles as a lawful permanent resident. After Rodriguez was sentenced to five years' probation on a misdemeanor drug possession conviction, he was detained and targeted for deportation to Mexico, the country he had left as a baby two decades earlier. He remained locked up as his legal battle dragged on for years.
The 9th Circuit ruled not only that detainees were entitled to bond hearings but also that they should be released unless the government could demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that they were dangerous or a flight risk. But on Tuesday Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart told the court that detainees "have no such right." He later said that insofar as foreigners arriving in the U.S. are concerned, the Supreme Court has made it clear that "whatever process Congress chooses to give is due process."
Yet in recent years the court has recognized not only that noncitizens have constitutional rights but that deportation can be a catastrophic experience. In June, the court overturned the guilty plea of an immigrant from South Korea because his lawyer wrongly told him he wouldn't be deported as a consequence of a plea bargain.
The United States is often called "a nation of immigrants." But too often immigrants haven't received fair treatment from the courts. The cases argued this week offer the Supreme Court an opportunity to rectify that injustice.