The US Supreme Court released its decision on Thursday in the case of Barton v. Barr, which was argued last fall and concerned a green-card-holder’s eligibility to have his deportation cancelled. The court held that Barton, a Jamaican national who was a lawful permanent resident in the US for more than 30 years, was ineligible to have his deportation canceled because his 1996 assault conviction met a category of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that precluded such relief.
The case turned on interpreting that law and its eligibility provisions; Barton had argued that since the 1996 crime was not a crime that the government had grounds to deport him for, it could not be used to deny the judge the discretion she would otherwise have to cancel his deportation. But the Supreme Court’s majority disagreed, construing the eligibility criteria as akin to “recidivist sentencing statutes,” where the dive into one’s criminal background can be broader. The federal government pursued Barton’s deportation in 2016, citing two drug offenses in 2007 and 2008 and a separate gun charge from 1996.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the five-justice majority, joined by the court’s conservative wing. The majority noted a split among the appeals courts regarding the statutory language in question, with the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reading it to mean people in Barton’s position were eligible for cancellation and other circuits arguing they were not. Barton’s 1996 assault was an offense that the INA categorizes as rendering non-citizens “inadmissible” when they apply for visas or permanent status. This contrasts with other provisions of the law that render already admitted residents “deportable” after committing certain crimes, like Barton’s drug and gun offenses. But when the government seeks to deport someone and cites the latter crimes, that person can ask the immigration judge to cancel the deportation due to breaking family ties and other harms if they have been US residents for a long time. First, however, they must meet certain criteria, such as residing continuously in the US for an initial seven-year period without committing serious crimes; committing such crimes negates that period, with other consequences in addition to those for deportation.
The ineligibility is thus called a “stop-time” provision, and the court’s majority held that the stop-time rule in Barton’s case made reference to any relevant crime during that seven year period, not limited to crimes that could warrant deportation. “Congress has employed the concept of ‘inadmissibility’ as a status in a variety of statutes,” wrote Kavanaugh. Invoking crimes that could lead to inadmissibility in the deportation proceeding context, Kavanaugh said, was the choice Congress made in the way it drafted the law. “Whether the offense that precludes cancellation of removal was charged or could have been charged as one of the offenses of removal is irrelevant,” Kavanaugh wrote, and the “Court is constrained to apply the law as enacted by Congress.”
The four dissenting justices, joining an opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, read the statutory text differently. Sotomayor noted that the text of the INA did not refer to crimes that “could” categorize someone as “inadmissible” but instead referred to a crime that “renders” that person inadmissible. This, the dissenting justices reasoned, was because the intends to treat people in the admissibility and deportation contexts wholly differently. And Barton, they said, could not be “rendered” inadmissible if he had long ago already been admitted. “[B]ecause of the Court’s opinion today,” Sotomayor argued, “noncitizens who were already admitted to the country are treated, for the purposes of the stop-time rule, identically to those who were not[.]” This, she said, would be at odds with the way Congress intended to treat lawful permanent residents like Barton who had spent the great majority of their lives in the US.