In a decision issued Tuesday, the US Supreme Court made it easier for some immigrants convicted of drug possession under state laws to avoid deportation. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, immigrants convicted of an aggravated felony face mandatory deportation. In this case, the court held that even if a conviction for drug possession is considered a felony under state law, if it is not considered a felony under the federal Controlled Substances Act, it cannot be an aggravated felony for immigration purposes.
The ruling came in the case of Lopez v. Gonzalez. Jose Antonio Lopez, who was born in Mexico, was a 16-year legal permanent resident of the US with a wife and children and a family business when he was arrested in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and charged with aiding and abetting cocaine possession. Under South Dakota law, that's a felony. Lopez pled guilty and was sentenced to five years in state prison. Upon finishing his prison sentence, he was deported to Mexico in January 2006.
Lopez appealed his deportation by an Immigration and Naturalization Service judge, but in a 2005 opinion, the US 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis denied him. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and now Lopez has a chance to come back to his new home in the US.
The ruling came on an 8-1 vote, with Justice Clarence Thomas alone in the dissent.
The Bush administration argued that Congress left the door open to counting such offenses as aggravated felonies, but Justice David Souter, who wrote the opinion, and the court weren't buying it. In a passage where he accused the government of "incoherence," Souter added that "the government's way... would often turn simple possession into trafficking, just what the English language tells us not to expect and that result makes us very wary of the government's position."
With some 12 million permanent resident immigrants living in the country, the Lopez ruling is likely to affect thousands of immigrants with minor drug-related convictions.