Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Deportation Provision

The April 17 SCOTUS decision Sessions v. Dimaya strikes down part of the Immigration and Nationality Act that authorized the government to deport some immigrants, including lawful permanent residents, convicted of “aggravated felonies.” In this Q&A, Professor Jayashri Srikantiah, director of Stanford Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, discusses the case.

Can you explain the key parts of the decision and why it went to the Supreme Court?

The case involves a lawful permanent resident who has a past conviction. The federal government tried to deport him based on that conviction, arguing that the conviction is a “crime of violence” aggravated felony. The Supreme Court took up the issue of whether the term “crime of violence” in immigration cases is unconstitutionally vague.

Jayashri Srikantiah 3
Stanford Law School Professor Jayashri Srikantiah

In striking down the “crimes of violence” provision, Justice Kagan wrote in the majority opinion: “The void-for-vagueness doctrine, as we have called it, guarantees that ordinary people have ‘fair notice’ of the conduct a statute proscribes.” What does that mean?

The void-for-vagueness doctrine protects people from being punished or deported based on vague language. The language of the “crime of violence” provision, for example, turned on an assessment of what is “substantial risk” of physical force. The Court held that this language was so vague as to be unconstitutional.

 Was the provision over-used or misused?

The “aggravated felony” provisions of the immigration laws are often misunderstood. The term “aggravated felony” can include even minor, non-violent misdemeanors. In my view, these provisions are overly punitive and harmful. They subject immigrants to deportation even after they have served their time, and even when they have deep and longstanding ties to this country.

Why is this decision important?

The Supreme Court recognized that deportation is a severe penalty, and applied the same void for vagueness doctrine that it uses in the criminal context to an immigration case. For immigrants in the criminal justice system, the immigration consequences of their crimes–including deportation–are far harsher than their sentence. The Supreme Court acknowledged this critical truth in its decision.

Jayashri Srikantiah is a professor of law and the founding director of Stanford Law’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. Under her direction, students in the clinic have represented scores of immigrants facing deportation, including asylum-seekers, immigrants with prior criminal convictions, immigrant survivors of crime and undocumented migrants with longstanding ties to the United States.