With the new Trump administration, immigration has been in the national news. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have emphasized that the U.S. government will target “criminal aliens” in its removals. At various times, Trump has focused on crimes committed by Mexican immigrants. In the first of a number of immigration decisions from the 2016 term, the Supreme Court today decided its first crime-based removal decision in the new administration, Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions. The case involved an immigrant from Mexico convicted of what could be viewed as a “sex crime.” The decision in favor of the lawful permanent resident – written by Justice Clarence Thomas for a unanimous court (minus Justice Neil Gorsuch, who did not participate) — might be surprising to some observers.
The facts of the case are relatively simple. When Juan Esquivel-Quintana, a lawful permanent resident from Mexico, was 20 years old, he was convicted under California law for having consensual sex with his then-16-year-old girlfriend. An “aggravated felony” conviction generally requires mandatory removal of an immigrant from the United States and renders the immigrant ineligible for most forms of relief from removal. Section 1101(a)(43) of the Immigration and Nationality Act defines an “aggravated felony” to include the “sexual abuse of a minor.” Claiming that Esquivel-Quintana’s conviction constituted an “aggravated felony,” the U.S. government initiated removal proceedings against him, and the immigration court ordered him removed from the United States. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal from the removal order. Applying the Supreme Court’s seminal 1984 decision in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit deferred to the BIA’s interpretation of “sexual abuse of a minor” and upheld the removal order. The dissent would have applied the rule of lenity, a judicial doctrine under which ambiguities in criminal law are resolved in favor of the defendant, to the interpretation of the criminal-removal provision in the immigration law and would have found that Esquivel-Quintana’s conviction was not an aggravated felony.
As described by Thomas, the question before the court was “whether a conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old qualifies as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA.” The court’s answer was brief and straightforward: “We hold that it does not.”
The court first reiterated the standard test for determining whether an immigrant’s “conviction qualifies as an aggravated felony,” as set forth in several recent cases:“[W]e ‘employ a categorical approach by looking to the statute … of conviction, rather than to the specific facts underlying the crime.’” Under the categorical approach, “we ask whether the state statute defining the crime of conviction categorically fits within the ‘generic’ federal definition of a corresponding aggravated felony.” In other words, “we presume that the state conviction “rested upon … the least of th[e] acts” criminalized by the statute, and then we determine whether that conduct would fall within the federal definition of the crime.” Under that approach, Esquivel-Quintana’s state conviction is “an ‘aggravated felony’ under the INA only if the least of the acts criminalized by the state statute falls within the generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor.”
That was not the case here, the court concluded. After examining Section 1101(a)(43)(A) of the INA, Thomas observed that the statute’s requirement that the sexual abuse be “of a minor” means that “the statute of conviction must prohibit certain sexual acts based at least in part on the age of the victim.” The court pointed to statutory rape laws as a prime example of “this category of crimes,” and relied on “reliable dictionaries” to define the “’generic’” age of consent in those laws as 16. The court rejected the “everyday understanding of ‘sexual abuse of a minor’” offered by the government, which would have included activity involving victims up to the age of 18, pointing out that “the Government’s definition turns the categorical approach on its head” by conditioning the crime on the particular laws of each state.”
Moving to a consideration of the INA provisions surrounding Section 1101(a)(43)(A), the court emphasized that the statute’s definition of “aggravated felony” includes murder and rape, and that the “structure of the INA therefore suggests that the sexual abuse of a minor encompasses only especially egregious felonies.” According to the court, related federal statutes as well as state criminal codes also support the conclusion that “for a statutory rape offense to qualify as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA based solely on the age of the participants, the victim must be younger than 16.” “Because the California statute at issue in this case does not categorically fall within that definition, a conviction pursuant to it is not an aggravated felony under §1101(a)(43)(A).”
By resolving the case on statutory grounds, the court avoided the more far-reaching questions raised by the majority and dissent in the court below. Thomas stated: “We have no need to resolve whether the rule of lenity or Chevron receives priority in this case because the statute, read in context, unambiguously forecloses the Board’s interpretation. Therefore, neither the rule of lenity nor Chevron applies.” A decision on either of those grounds would have had more far-reaching implications for immigration law than strict reliance on the interpretation of the statutory phrase “sexual abuse of a minor.”
Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions fits in neatly with the court’s recent immigration decisions, such as Mellouli v. Lynch in 2015 and Moncrieffe v. Holder in 2013, which also applied ordinary modes of statutory interpretation to the immigration laws. In a series of crime-based removal decisions, the court has engaged in close parsing of the language of the statutory provisions in question. This approach is no different than that employed by the court in other cases. Although not breaking new ground today, the court continues to move forward in applying ordinary analytical approaches to immigration law, which historically had been in certain respects “exceptional” in the amount of deference given to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Immigrants have prevailed more often than not in the court’s recent decisions as the U.S. government has pressed cases, like Esquivel-Quintana, which the court found to be unsupported by the immigration statute.