WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court blocked the government Monday from routinely deporting legal immigrants for minor drug-possession charges, a decision that immigrant-rights lawyers said would spare tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding residents from being sent out of the United States.
In a 9-0 decision, the justices said a Texas man who had pleaded guilty at different times to having a marijuana cigarette and a single Xanax pill, an antianxiety drug, had been wrongfully deported.
Jose Carachuri-Rosendo was taken into federal custody after pleading no contest to having the Xanax without a prescription. An immigration judge and a federal appeals court ruled that he must be deported because his second drug-possession conviction qualified as an "aggravated felony."
His case, Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, illustrates the potentially harsh effects of a 1996 federal law that aimed to rid the nation of immigrants who were criminals and violent offenders. Previously, immigrants could ask for leniency if they had a job, a family, or other ties in the United States.
The new law, by contrast, required the deportation of any noncitizen convicted of an "aggravated felony." But Congress did not carefully define this term. Since then, immigration judges have been deciding which crimes fit the definition.
Justice John Paul Stevens said for the court that the government's view in this case defied common sense.
Because of its strict wording, the 1996 law had required deportation even for legal residents who have lived in the United States for decades and served in its military.
Carachuri-Rosendo, 32, was born in Mexico and came to Texas with his parents when he was 5. He became a lawful permanent resident and has a wife and four children.
He served 20 days in jail for a misdemeanor marijuana charge. He spent 10 days in jail for the Xanax pill before he was taken into federal custody and deported to Mexico. Now, he can seek to return.
Also yesterday, the justices agreed to hear California's appeal of a court order that says the state's overcrowded prisons must cut their population by nearly 40,000 inmates.
Read the justices' ruling
in the immigrant drug-