Supreme Court Rejects Retroactive Application of Immigration Law
March 28, 2012, Washington, DC
The Supreme Court issued an important decision in the case Vartelas v. Holder, holding that lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who left the US on short and temporary trips cannot be denied readmission based on criminal convictions that occurred before the passing of IIRIRA, in 1996.
What is IIRIRA?
To understand the important impact of Vartelas v. Holders, an understanding of IIRIRA is important. In 1996, Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which precluded foreign travel by lawful permanent residents who had certain convictions. Under IIRIRA, LPRs are regarded as seeking admission to the U.S. if they fall within any of the six (6) enumerated categories, and could be permanently removed from the U.S. if they were found guilty of certain convictions. The net result was that certain LPRs would be precluded from ever leaving the U.S.
It should be noted that, prior to IIRIRA, LPRs who committed certain crimes, included crimes involving moral turpitude were allowed to briefly travel outside the U.S. without having to apply for admission to U.S. upon each entry. The shift to IIRIRA therefore significantly impacted the abilities of many LPRs to leaving the U.S.
FACTUAL CASE DETAILS
Vartelas, a Greek citizen, had resided in the U.S. for more than 30 years. He was granted LPR status since 1989. In 1994, before the enactment of IIRIRA, Vartelas pled guilty to conspiracy to make or possess counterfeit securities. In 2003, he briefly traveled to Greece to visit his parents. Upon his return, he was classified as an alien seeking “admission” to the U.S. and subjected to IIRIRA admission procedures. Because Vartela’s crime fell within the definition of a “crime involving moral turpitude”, he was placed in removal proceedings. Incidentally, it is noteworthy that Vartelas previously travelled to Greece a number of times after the passing of IIRIRA and had no issues upon each of those admissions to the U.S.
RATIONALE BEHIND COURT’S DECISION:
The Supreme Court’s rationale for rejecting the retroactive application of IIRIRA in Vartela’s case was based on the well-established legal principle that new laws cannot be retroactively applied. The Court reasoned that it would have been patently unfair if Mr. Vartelas was subjected to penalties that did not exist when he entered his criminal plea. In her majority opinion, Justice Ginsburg noted that the losing the ability to travel abroad could potentially prevent many persons from attending to family, religious, and other important matters overseas.
MSA believes that the Supreme Court’s ruling was proper. A different ruling would have imposed significant and undue burdens on persons convicted of certain crimes that were committed before the enactment of IIRIRA, which did not make them deportable or inadmissible to the U.S. The implications of a contrary holding would have been far-reaching.