ACLU Hails Unanimous Supreme Court Decision Rejecting Unfair Deportation of Legal Immigrants

November 9, 2004 12:00 am

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Drunk Driving Does Not Justify Mandatory Deportation, Court Rules

WASHINGTON, DC-In a victory for immigrants’ rights, the Supreme Court today ruled that a drunk driving conviction, while a “nationwide problem,” does not allow for mandatory deportation of legal immigrants.

“Today’s unanimous decision repudiates the administration’s improper interpretation of the law, and underscores the crucial role of the courts in reviewing government deportation orders,” said Lucas Guttentag, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants Rights Project. “It is now incumbent on the government to allow immigrants who have been wrongly deported to return.”

In today’s opinion, the Court ruled in favor of Josue Leocal, a 47-year-old Haitian man living in Florida who is fighting a deportation order after pleading guilty to a drunk driving felony in 2000. This was a first criminal offense for Leocal, who has lived in the United States legally for more than 20 years and whose wife and children are American citizens.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of Leocal, the ACLU argued that Florida’s drunk driving statute does not constitute an “aggravated felony” under the criteria set forth by the U.S. Congress, and that any ambiguity in the law should be resolved in the immigrant’s favor because of the dire consequences of a mandatory deportation order.

Later in its Term, the Court will rule on two other cases involving government powers to deport or indefinitely detain immigrants. Jama v. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service involves the government’s asserted authority to deport non-citizens to countries without any functioning government, in this case Somalia. Clark v. Martinez and Benitez v. Rozos, which have been consolidated, involve the indefinite detention of two Cuban refugees who were paroled into the country as part of the “Mariel” boat-lift in 1980 and have lived here ever since. Both Martinez and Benitez are subject to final orders of exclusion from the United States because of crimes they committed while living in this country, but they cannot be deported because Cuba will not accept their return. The government claims that it is entitled to detain them indefinitely — for the rest of their lives if need be — based on its own unreviewable determination that they should not be released.

In its friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Benitez case, the ACLU argues that the government’s position raises serious constitutional problems and is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Congress’s indefinite detention statute.

For more information on Benitez v. Rozos, go to /court/court.cfm?ID=15151&c=261.

For a copy of today’s decision in Leocal v. Ashcroft, go to /node/36320.

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