A Haitian immigrant, who made history by challenging the immigration laws of the United States from a jail cell in Connecticut, has won a major battle on behalf of legal immigrants caught up in deportation proceedings nationwide.
Twenty-six-year-old Enrico St. Cyr, who has spent almost two years in the Connecticut Correctional Facility, may soon be released, because of his willingness to question the 1996 Immigration Laws. Attorney Michael Moore of Massachusetts, along with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, argued on behalf of St. Cyr and three other immigrants that it was unconstitutional to deport aliens who had committed crimes —even minor ones—prior to the 1996 law without allowing them to seek reprieve. The government retorted that Congress had stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction to review the way in which the attorney general carried out the immigration laws.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, agreed with St. Cyr’s attorneys. The 5-to-4 decision will ensure immigrants access to the federal courts if they wish to challenge deportation orders. The justices stated that Congress failed to fully “articulate specific and unambiguous statutory directives to effect a repeal.” Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, noted that habeas corpus review of immigration decisions was common before 1996.
“To conclude that the writ is no longer available in this context would represent a departure from historical practice in immigration law,” he said, and would raise a serious constitutional question under the clause of Article I providing that “the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended” in peacetime.
Two laws were questioned—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The first basically spelled out a wide range of deportable offenses which essentially stripped the immigrant of seeking a form of administrative relief that had often been granted to aliens with family ties or with a minor offense marring an otherwise good record. This law also restricted judicial review for aliens placed in custody for various reasons.
The second law restricted the rights of people who had been lawfully admitted into the country. This law provided that “no court shall have jurisdiction to review any final order of removal” for aliens who had committed any of various crimes in the United States.
Both the lawyers for St. Cyr and the government team basically addressed the question of whether a federal court could review the policy that waivers of deportation were no longer available, and if so, was the policy a correct interpretation of the 1996 law?
These questions were addressed in federal courts around the country with most ruling in St. Cyr’s favor, including the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Monday’s ruling now gives St. Cyr the right to seek a waiver but it did not order one to be granted. Addressing the merits of St. Cyr’s case, Justice Stevens said that to remove the prospect of seeking a waiver of deportation from those who had pleaded guilty in the expectation that waivers would be available made the new law impermissibly retroactive in the absence of a clear statement of Congressional intent. The “potential for unfairness” was “significant and manifest,” he said, especially given that lawyers for immigrants facing criminal charges typically factored the immigration consequences of any advice they gave their clients.
Rejecting the government’s argument that a waiver of deportation was at best an act of administrative grace, Justice Stevens said, “There is a clear difference, for the purposes of retroactivity analysis, between facing possible deportation and facing certain deportation,” especially since more than half of requested waivers had been granted.
St. Cyr’s story dates back to 1996, before the new immigration laws took effect. Court records show that St. Cyr was admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident on June 17, 1986. His parents and sister, who lived here prior to his coming, are U.S. citizens and his brother is a lawful permanent resident.
On March 8, 1996, prior to the enactment date of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, St. Cyr pled guilty to the sale of a controlled substance, in violation of the state of Connecticut’s laws. At the time that St. Cyr pled guilty to the charge, the drug conviction rendered him deportable under the immigration laws but he was still eligible for a waiver.
On April 10, 1997, the INS issued St Cyr a Notice to Appear, charging him as removable under the new law, because he had been convicted of an aggravated felony. On January 12, 1998, an immigration judge found that St. Cyr was removable under Section 237 of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. In the time between St. Cyr’s conviction and his receipt of a Notice to Appear, Congress enacted the AEDPA and IIRIRA. These laws significantly limited the cases where discretionary relief from deportation could be sought and rendered an immigrant who was removable because of an aggravated felony conviction, statutorily ineligible to apply for relief from deportation.
At his hearing, St. Cyr’s lawyer Michael Moore sought to prevent his client’s removal by applying for a discretionary waiver of deportation under the former law. The immigration judge denied the application. Moore then appealed St. Cyr’s removal order to the Board of Immigration Appeals but because of the changes made by Congress to the immigration laws, the BIA dismissed the Haitian national’s appeal on November 10, 1998.
On April 27, 1999, St. Cyr filed a “habeas corpus” petition in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut.
St. Cyr may be released in a few weeks, his attorney said, and will be given a chance to show that he’s rehabilitated his life.
The court also heard the cases involving Fazila Khan, a Guyanese immigrant and Sergio Madrid and Deboris Calcano-Martinez, two Latino immigrants. All three are drug offenders but each have been paroled despite the deportation notices hanging over their heads.
Meanwhile, two other immigrants scored a major win for all detained aliens last Thursday. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, by a 5-4 vote, that the government may not keep criminal immigrants in prison indefinitely until the United States persuades a country to take them.
At issue was the jailing of immigrants who have been convicted of a crime and served their sentences and are deportable but cannot be sent back because their native countries have no repatriation agreement with the United States. The immigrants challenging the government through attorneys of the ACLU, were Kim Ho Ma, a Cambodian refugee who came to the United States in 1985 and became a lawful permanent resident in 1987 and Kestutis Zadvydas, whose parents were from Lithuania and who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1948.
Ma was convicted of manslaughter in a gang-related shooting in Seattle in 1996 and served a prison sentence of more than two years. He was released from state custody and transferred to the federal immigration agency, where he remained in detention. He was ordered deported because of his conviction, but Cambodia refused to allow his return.
Zadvydas came to the United States in 1956 as a resident alien, and never became a U.S. citizen. He was convicted on drug charges in 1992, and was released to the custody of the immigration agency in 1994 after serving two years in prison. The United States moved to deport him, but first Germany and then Lithuania refused to accept him. Lithuania said he was not a citizen and not a permanent resident of that country, but added that he could apply for Lithuanian citizenship.