The court discussion boiled down to this: How similarly should chickens and people be viewed?
An immigration court ruling held that being involved in an illegal activity – such as cockfighting – that hurt a chicken was, in essence, harming a member of a “protected class of victim,” and thus a crime involving “moral turpitude.”
That view of cockfights denied a Mexican man, Agustin Ortega-Lopez, the right to contest his deportation. But on Tuesday, a federal appeals court said that in this case, chickens were not the same as people, and remanded the case back to immigration court, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Ortega-Lopez was convicted in 2008 of participating in a cockfight. An immigration judge hearing his request to contest plans for him to be deported said he could not challenge it because he had engaged in a crime of moral turpitude.
In the appeals case, prosecutors noted that Ortega-Lopez’s role in the cockfight was minor.
“He was hardly the Don Corleone (or even the Fredo) of this enterprise,” U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John B. Owens wrote for the panel in a reference to the character in the movie “The Godfather.”
“A protected class of victims” typically covers people considered vulnerable to their race or age, for example.
“The crime at issue involving harm to chickens is, at first blush, outside the normal realm,” of crimes involving moral turpitude, the panel said, according to the Times.
The court said the immigration judges had failed to analyze whether cockfighting involved a protected class.
Ortega-Lopez arrived in the United States in 1992 illegally. He is married and is the father of three U.S. citizen children, the Times said.
N. David Shamloo, his lawyer, said he was pleased with the decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Shamloo said the decision “sent a message to the executive branch that it can’t just extend the duties that mankind has owed to other men to chickens.”
Shamloo added that laws against cockfighting were meant to protect people and not chickens.
In immigration court, the judge said: “Unlike hunting or racing, animal fighting is a spectacle, the entire purpose of which is the intentional infliction of harm or pain on sentient beings that are compelled to fight, often to the death.”
But the 9th Circuit said: “Congress has declared cockfighting a scourge that warrants prosecution, and we have no quarrel with that.”
“Yet that is not our inquiry here — rather, we must determine whether the conviction” involved moral turpitude, the panel said.
“In answering this question, the government urges us to hold that cockfighting is a vile and depraved practice, which in its view ends the story,” the panel said. “It does not.”
“The fact that cockfighting is outlawed throughout the nation is not enough to justify categorizing it a crime of moral turpitude,” the 9th Circuit said.
“More is required,” the panel said.
Cockfighting is not only legal in most countries in Latin America, it’s also a popular sport and cultural phenomenon.
The case will go back to immigration court.
“For the first time, the (board) equated the life of a chicken to the life of a human being,” Shamloo said to the San Francisco Chronicle.
He noted that some courts consider staging dogfights as a deportable crime, but “we treat dogs differently” than chickens, he said. “We don’t eat dogs. Dogs are our pets.”
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