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U.S. Supreme Court lays down the law on a deportation loophole

The Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous decision on May 17, 2017, in Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, in favor of a lawful Mexican immigrant on the premise that federal law was inappropriately applied in attempts to justify deportation.

Juan Esquivel-Quintana lawfully entered the United States with his parents back in 2000 and settled in the Sacramento area of California. When Esquivel was 20 years old, he had sex with his then 16-year-old girlfriend, which he soon came to find was in violation of California law.

In 2009, Esquivel pled no contest in California to statutory rape. The bigger problem for Esquivel was that the relevant statute further provided that the perpetrator is guilty of a misdemeanor or felony when the minor is more than three years younger than the offender. Additionally, under California law, a minor is any person under the age of 18. This provision then means it would be illegal for someone who just turned 21 to have sex with someone who was about to turn 18.

After serving about three months in jail and being sentenced to five years of probation, Esquivel faced another problem with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The “sexual abuse of a minor” is considered an aggravated felony; therefore, DHS sought to strip Esquivel of his citizenship and have him deported back to Mexico.

Esquivel moved to Michigan, where the DHS initiated removal proceedings based on the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which allows for removal of a non-citizen in the case of an aggravated felony, such as the “sexual abuse of a minor.” After an immigration judge ordered Esquivel’s removal, Esquivel filed an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (“Board”) arguing his statutory rape conviction did not rise to “sexual abuse of a minor.” The Board affirmed the lower judge’s decision, stating the INA included convictions under the California statute to which Esquivel pled guilty.

After reviewing the case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the Board’s ruling, giving deference to the administrative agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statue. This decision is consistent with other Supreme Court decisions, such as Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, and refuses to extend the rule of lenity into civil cases by encouraging courts to give deference to regulatory and administrative agencies’ interpretations of relevant legislation. However, the Supreme Court wholly disagreed.

As a result of the Court’s decision, Esquivel will no longer be considered for removal by the federal government.

In an 8-0 decision, with Justice Gorsuch having not participated, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision. Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, concluded after surveying other state laws regarding the issue that federal law should treat the age of consent as 16, regardless of the difference in age. Currently, thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have determined the age of 16 as the crux for statutory rape offenses that depend only on the age of the participants. The remaining states are split above and below this “general consensus” age.

The Court reasoned that California law cannot be categorically considered, separated from the central structures of criminal code, for the purpose of triggering deportation under the INA. As a result of the Court’s decision, Esquivel will no longer be considered for removal by the federal government.

Additionally, this decision likely spoke volumes in the face of Attorney General Sessions and the Trump administration as a whole. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Esquivel in late-February 2017, which was after President Trump and his administration came into office. With a strong, unanimous opinion curtailing the federal government’s power to act on immigration technicalities, it would seem as though the President may have an unanticipated uphill battle in the Supreme Court as he attempts to follow through on some of his campaign promises.

President Trump, DHS, and Attorney General Sessions have all spoken on their primary focus of targeting serious criminals, also known as “bad hombres,” though some GOP lawmakers have reported concerns on who the targets actually are.

Trump’s most notable immigration pushes have come in the form of promises to build a border wall and through two successive bans on immigrants from several Muslim-majority nations. Despite the fact that President Trump has yet to lay a brick or successfully convince the courts to permit his travel bans, the administration’s major crackdown on immigration is proving nonetheless to make progress.

Perhaps Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric is a contributor, but the number of arrests on the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted to the lowest level in nearly two decades just weeks after Trump took office; however, the effects of altering the flow of immigrants in and out of the U.S. cannot be analyzed only by arrest reports. Several businesses are turning away from foreign labor sources and foreign students are far less interested in U.S. colleges and universities, both of which serve as major sources of revenue to the country.

In essence, the Trump administration is casting a much bigger net. The administration is empowering federal agents, and hiring up to 15,000 more of them, many of which have reported they feel freer to do their jobs again as opposed to working within the confines of past administrations’ limitations. President Trump, DHS, and Attorney General Sessions have all spoken on their primary focus of targeting serious criminals, as known as “bad hombres,” though some GOP lawmakers have reported concerns on who the targets actually are.

Moreover, Trump’s self-declared “travel ban” suggests how far his administration is willing to go to increase anti-immigration legislation. Trump has stated he wants the travel ban to be “tough,” and include an “extreme” vetting process for those looking to enter the U.S. Despite recommendations and suggested alterations, Trump has made it clear he refuses to back down. The President has accused the Department of Justice of “watering down” the policy (likely to conform the order to religiously-neutral standards). He has also tweeted about duking out the controversy in court, and has consistently criticized leaders of the countries who have suffered tragedy at the hands of foreigners.

[T]he Supreme Court has made itself known for insisting on true justice, even amidst a deportation loophole in California law.

Citizens of the U.S. may be facing harmful consequences, too. The severe anti-immigration policies will ultimately affect more than those who are considering immigration to the U.S. In Trump’s interior enforcement executive order, Trump committed the federal government to withholding grants and other funding from those who refuse to share immigration status information with federal agents. While some cities, like San Francisco, sought to resist Trump, others fell to order in fear of losing necessary funding. Benjamin Stevenson, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that Trump was taking note of his cooperatives and otherwise making a “naughty list.”

Cecilia Muñoz, who was the domestic policy director to former President Barack Obama recently stated, “You could argue this administration is actively trying to make the United States a less attractive place to come, not just for undocumented immigrants, but for people from anywhere… [i]n the end, that can’t be good for us.”

The aggressiveness of the administration clearly did not yield in the case of Mr. Esquivel. In reliance on a state law technicality, Attorney General Sessions stood before the Supreme Court and argued that the deportation of this legal immigrant was necessary, and a top priority to the Trump administration; however, the Supreme Court has made itself known for insisting on true justice, even amidst a deportation loophole in California law. Americans will need to rely on this consistent and just application of the law in the future.

Taylor Elkins
About Taylor Elkins (5 Articles)
Taylor Elkins is a third year law student and serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Born and raised in Owasso, Oklahoma, Taylor went to Baylor University where she obtained a degree in biology and political science. During her time at Campbell, Taylor has worked at the North Carolina Department of Justice in the Criminal Appellate Division. She won Campbell's Richard Lord Intramural Moot Court Competition, and is now a member of Campbell's national moot court team. She is interested in patent law as well as appellate advocacy.