Supreme Court decides immigration cases regarding deportation for statutory rape, false procuring of citizenship, and transmission of citizenship through unwed parents
The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued three immigration-related decisions.
The Court held a felony conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sex with a minor 16 years old or older will not generally be considered an “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of minor” for deportation purposes, though there may be exceptions for perpetrators in a position of trust or other situations.
In a second case, the Court held that the federal statute which makes it a crime to procure citizenship contrary to law requires that the Government establish that the illegal act by the defendant played some role in the defendant’s acquiring citizenship.
Lastly, the Court held that a federal law which allows unwed mothers to transmit their U.S. citizenship to their children born outside the U.S. under more favorable terms than unwed fathers violates equal protection. But the remedy is to apply the more restrictive unwed-father rule to everyone, not the more favorable unwed-mother rule.
Consensual sex with minor 16 or over is not generally an “aggravated felony”
In Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, decided May 30, a unanimous Court held that a felony conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sex with a minor 16 years of age or older was not an “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of minor,” which triggered deportation.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, aliens convicted of an aggravated felony after admission to the U.S. may be removed if they are convicted of an “aggravated felony.” “Sexual abuse of a minor” is listed as one of the crimes that constitutes an “aggravated felony.” However, the INA does not further define sexual abuse of a minor.
Juan Esquivel-Quintana was a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. He was convicted under a state statute which criminalized sexual intercourse “with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator.” The law defined “minor” as a person under age 18. The U.S. sought to deport him.
Under INA, aliens are removable based on the nature of their convictions, not based on their actual conduct. Thus, courts use a “categorical approach” by looking at the statute of conviction to determine if it is one requiring removal, not the specific facts of the underlying crime. The question is whether the state statute defining the crime of conviction categorically fits within the “generic” federal definition of the corresponding “aggravated felony.”
Here, the statute at issue would criminalize sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old. However, the “generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor requires that the victim be younger than 16,” the Court held. Because the state statute does not categorically fall within that definition, a conviction under it is not an “aggravated felony.”
Although the age of consent for statutory rape purposes varies by jurisdiction, “reliable dictionaries” at the time sexual abuse of a minor was added to INA in 1996 – and today – indicate that the “generic” age of consent is 16, the Court said. In addition, thirty-one states and the District of Columbia set the age of consent at 16 in 1996.
The Court noted, however, that there may be exceptions to 16 being the age of consent. Many jurisdictions set a different age when the perpetrator and victim are in a special position of trust. “Accordingly, the generic crime of sexual abuse of a minor may include a different age of consent where the perpetrator and victim are in a significant relationship of trust,” the Court said.
Also, “[w]e leave for another day whether the generic offense requires a particular age differential between the victim and the perpetrator, and whether the generic offense encompasses sexual intercourse involving victims over the age of 16 that is abusive because of the nature of the relationship between the participants.”
“We hold [only] that in the context of statutory rape offenses focused solely on the age of the participants, the generic federal definition of ‘sexual abuse of a minor’ … requires the age of the victim to be less than 16,” the Court concluded.
Illegally Procuring Citizenship
In Maslenjak v. United States, decided June 22, a six-Justice majority, with the three other justices concurring, held that 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1425(a), which makes it a crime to “knowingly procure, contrary to law, the naturalization of any person” requires the Government to prove that the illegal act played some role in the defendant’s acquisition of their own citizenship. A naturalized citizen convicted under the statute automatically has their citizenship revoked.
“When the illegal act is a false statement, that means demonstrating that the defendant lied about facts that would have mattered to an immigration official, because they would have justified denying naturalization or would predictably have led to other facts warranting that result,” the Court held.
Divna Maslenjak answered on her naturalization form that she had never given false information to a Government official while applying for an immigration benefit or to gain admission to the U.S. This answer was false. Maslenjak, in fact, had given immigration officials a false story when she sought refugee status in the U.S..
As a result, the Government charged Maslenjak with knowingly procuring her naturalization contrary to law in violation of Sec. 1425(a) because, in the course of procuring her naturalization, she broke a separate law which prohibits making a false statement in a naturalization proceeding.
The Government argued that the false statements need not have affected the naturalization decision to support a conviction under Sec. 1425(a). The Government argued that all it needed to prove was that one of the statements on Maslenjak’s application was false, not that it was material. The lower courts agreed.
The high Court reversed. Analyzing the text of the statute, the Court held that “the most natural understanding is that the illegal act must have somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship.”
“If whatever illegal conduct occurring within the naturalization process was a causal dead-end – if, so to speak, the ripples from that act could not have reached the decision to award citizenship – then the act cannot support a charge that the applicant obtained citizenship illegally,” the Court said.
With regard to a false statement, the test is objective, the Court said. “[A] jury must evaluate how knowledge of the real facts would have affected a reasonable government official properly applying naturalization law.”
Additionally, even if the true facts would not in and of themselves have justified denying citizenship, a defendant can be convicted if those facts would have led to the discovery of other facts which would have done so, the Court said. In such cases, the Government need only prove that the additional investigation “would predictably have disclosed” some legal disqualification to naturalization.
Transmission of Citizenship by Unwed Fathers
In Sessions v. Morales-Santana, decided June 12, the Court ruled that 8 U.S.C. Secs. 1401 and 1409, which allow unwed mothers to transmit their U.S. citizenship to their children born outside the U.S. on more favorable terms than unwed fathers, violates equal protection.
But in an unusual twist, the Court refused to apply the more favorable unwed-mother rule to children born of unwed fathers. Instead, the Court held that the more restrictive unwed-father rule must apply to everyone, unless Congress changes the law.
Luis Ramon Morales-Santana was born outside the U.S. to an unwed father, who was a U.S. citizen. In order for Morales-Santana to be considered a U.S. citizen, his father must have resided in the U.S. for a period of time prior to his birth – as relevant here, 10 years prior to the birth, at least five of which were after age 14.
The same law, however, provided that an unwed mother could transmit her U.S. citizenship to her child born outside the U.S. if she had lived in the U.S. just one year prior to the child’s birth.
Luis moved to the U.S. as a child and lived most of his life here. The Government sought to deport him after he was convicted of drug crimes in New York. He claimed he was a U.S. citizen due to his father. But his father had not lived in the U.S. for the requisite time period to transmit citizenship to him. Luis would have been eligible for citizenship if he had been born of an unwed mother.
He claimed the federal law violated equal protection principles implicit in the Fifth Amendment because it discriminated based on the gender of the parent.
The Supreme Court agreed, in an 8-0 opinion. The Court said that in light of its long-standing equal protection cases, the law’s different duration-of-residence requirements for unwed mothers and fathers who have accepted parental responsibility “is stunningly anachronistic.” The different criteria “cannot withstand inspection under a Constitution that requires the Government to respect the equal dignity and stature of its male and female citizens,” the Court ruled.
But the Court was unwilling to apply the more favorable unwed-mother rule to Luis.
Even though the usual remedy in equal protection cases is to extend the more favorable treatment to the party that had been treated unfavorably, that would render the “special treatment” Congress prescribed for unwed mothers to become the “general rule” and “no longer an exception.”
“[W]e must adopt the remedial course Congress likely would have chosen ‘had it been apprised of the constitutional infirmity,” the Court said. In this case, that means applying the longer unwed-father rule to all children.
The Court said Congress can change that rule, but must do so in a manner that neither favors nor disadvantages any person on the basis of gender.