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Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

Supreme Court Unanimously Reverses Deportation Order Based on Sexual Assault Conviction

In a unanimous decision announced by the Supreme Court of the United States in late May, the court ruled that a permanent resident who had been deported to Mexico under federal immigration laws based on a California conviction for statutory rape should be allowed back in the U.S. The decision highlights the interesting and often complex interplay between state criminal laws and federal immigration law with regard to deportation, touching on a hot-button controversy in the culture regarding immigration and criminal violations. Those facing deportation orders based on a state law felony conviction may be affected.

The Facts of Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions

Juan Esquivel-Quintana was a native of Mexico who lawfully immigrated to the United States in 2000 as a permanent resident. In 2009, he was convicted in a California state court for statutory rape based on state law which makes having sexual relations with a person under the age of 18 a crime if the victim is at least three years younger than the defendant. At the time of the offense, Esquivel-Quintana was 21 and the victim was 17.

As a result of this conviction, the Department of Homeland Security began removal proceedings to deport Esquivel-Quintana based on the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which allows for removal of permanent residents who have been convicted of “aggravated felonies.” He was ordered to be removed on the grounds that his crime constited “sexual abuse of a minor,” one of the listed aggravated felonies under the INA.  Esquivel-Quintana appealed his removal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, where he lost, and appealed that loss to a federal court of appeal, which declined to hear his appeal. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which took up his case and unanimously reversed the removal decision by the initial immigration judge.

The Interplay Between an INA “Aggravated Felony” and State Law

The court’s decision to reverse the removal decision was based on its conclusion that Esquivel-Quintana’s statutory rape conviction should not qualify as an aggravated felony under the law. The decision points out an interesting and important interplay between federal law, which is the source of our immigration law, and state law, which is the source of much of our criminal law and specifically the law under which Esquivel-Quintana was convicted.

The listed aggravated felonies under the INA refer to both state and federal law, and so immigration judges must decide whether a state law felony conviction corresponds with one of the listed aggravated felonies. Here, “sexual abuse of a minor” was not defined in the INA, and Esquivel-Quintana argued that only statutory rape convictions involving a victim under the age of 16 (and not 18) should be included. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that a “generic” definition of sexual abuse of a minor must refer to crimes involving a victim under the age of 16, based on the fact that the majority of states use 16 (and not 18) as the age of consent and that the only federal statute on point relating to sexual abuse of a minor also uses the age of 16 and not 18.

The Esquivel-Quintana case highlights the complex interplay not only between state and federal law in immigration proceedings, but also in the long journey through the appeals process between the immigration courts and the federal courts.

Legal Assistance With Criminal Appeals

If you received an unfair outcome in a criminal case, you may be eligible to appeal your verdict. The Law Office of Corey Evan Parker is focused on the civil and criminal appeals process in Washington and California. If you are considering filing a criminal or civil appeal, feel free to contact Mr. Parker today for a no obligation 30 minute consultation.