WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — A single tablet of an anti-anxiety drug got Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo 10 days in jail in Texas and a quick deportation to his native Mexico.
Too quick, a unanimous Supreme Court said Monday, in a ruling that could affect thousands of legal immigrants who face deportation over minor criminal records.
The lone Xanax tablet that Carachuri-Rosendo had without a prescription was his second minor drug crime, a year after he received 20 days in jail for possessing less than two ounces of marijuana.
When the federal government began deportation proceedings, it said Carachuri-Rosendo could not appeal for leniency from an immigration judge because his second conviction amounted to a serious, or aggravated, felony.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed with the government. The Obama administration argued in the Supreme Court that ruling was correct because Carachuri-Rosendo's second conviction could have been treated as a serious crime under federal law.
But Justice John Paul Stevens, who has announced his retirement from the bench, said the local prosecutor in Texas could have charged Carachuri-Rosendo with being a repeat offender, but didn't. So he was not convicted of a crime that would make his deportation automatic, Stevens said.
"Carachuri-Rosendo, and others in his position, may now seek cancellation of removal and thereby avoid the harsh consequence of mandatory removal," Stevens wrote for the court. He noted that immigrants may still be deported in such instances, but said immigration judges have the discretion to allow people to remain in this country.
Alina Das, a supervising attorney with the immigrant rights clinic at the New York University law school, said Congress intended automatic deportation to apply to drug traffickers, not people convicted of simple possession crimes.
She said thousands of immigrants plead guilty to minor offenses, then find themselves facing deportation with no prospect for leniency.
Carachuri-Rosendo, in his early 30s, had been in the United States legally since he was 5. His common-law wife, four children, mother and two sisters all are U.S. citizens, Stevens said.
The case is Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, 09-60.