March 4, 2021

Justices reject immigrant’s bid to seek relief from deportation

Justices reject immigrant’s bid to seek relief from deportation

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The Supreme Court on Thursday issued its opinion in Pereida v. Wilkinson, a case about whether an immigrant living in the country without authorization can seek relief from deportation for a minor crime. The court ruled 5-3 that because the noncitizen bears the burden to prove he is eligible for relief, he cannot carry that burden when his criminal record is unclear as to whether he was convicted of a crime that disqualifies him from relief. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent in which Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case because the oral argument occurred before she joined the court.

Clemente Pereida entered the United States without authorization nearly 25 years ago. He and his wife have three children, one of whom is a U.S. citizen and another of whom is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. In order to obtain employment at a cleaning company, Pereida allegedly presented a false Social Security card. He was subsequently convicted of a misdemeanor for attempting to commit the Nebraska crime labeled “criminal impersonation.” Pereida was sentenced to a fine of $100 and no jail time.

Immigrants, like Pereida, who have a long history in the United States and close U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident family members are eligible to apply for a benefit that would cancel their deportation based on hardship to these relatives. This benefit, however, is not available to individuals without immigration status who have been convicted of a “crime of moral turpitude” under section 240A(b)(1)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Nebraska’s criminal impersonation law includes several distinct offenses. Those versions that require intent to deceive are considered crimes involving moral turpitude under federal law and trigger immigration consequences. The other versions do not. Pereida’s criminal record, however, does not make clear which version of the offense he was convicted of.

The government argued that the statutory burden of proof placed on the immigrant seeking relief applies to the provision covering disqualifying crimes, and because Pereida could not prove that he was not convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, he was ineligible for relief. Consequently, an immigration judge could not consider the hardship that his deportation would have on his U.S. citizen child. Pereida argued that this rule breaks with the court’s precedent on how to determine whether state criminal convictions trigger immigration consequences under federal law.

The court ruled that the question of which offense contained within a divisible statute a prior conviction was for is a factual one. “And where, as here, the alien bears the burden of proof and was convicted under a divisible statute containing some crimes that qualify as crimes of moral turpitude, the alien must prove that his actual, historical offense of conviction isn’t among them,” Gorsuch wrote. Acknowledging record-keeping problems can arise that would make it difficult to bear this burden where court documents are incomplete or unavailable, Gorsuch reasoned that “Congress was entitled to conclude that uncertainty about an alien’s prior conviction should not redound to his benefit,” and that notwithstanding hardships that may be faced by immigrants in other cases, “[i]t is hardly this Court’s place to pick and choose among competing policy arguments like these along the way to selecting whatever outcome seems to us most congenial, efficient, or fair.”

Check back soon for in-depth analysis of the opinion.

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