Immigration law

In Immigration and Naturalization Service v. St. Cyr (2001), the Court ruled that the 1996 revisions to immigration law did not strip the courts of their habeas authority. Enrico St. Cyr had been admitted as a legal alien to the United States, but in 1996 he pled guilty to selling narcotics in violation of a Connecticut state law. This conviction, according to the United States, made him deportable. At the time of his conviction, he would have been eligible under existing law for a waiver of deportation at the discretion of the Attorney General. However, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began proceedings against him, two new laws had been enacted, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. According to the Attorney General, these new laws did not give him the discretion to waive deportation of aliens convicted of certain crimes, such as St. Cyr, and his opinion also limited aliens' rights to seek habeas corpus in federal courts.. St. Cyr filed for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that because he pled guilty prior to the passage of the new acts, they did not apply to him, and his petition for waiver should be considered under the old law. A Federal District Court accepted jurisdiction of St. Cyr's habeas corpus application and agreed that the new legislation did not apply to him; the Courts of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, and INS appealed.

The Supreme Court also affirmed. In an opinion by Justice Stevens, the majority ruled that federal courts had jurisdiction to hear St. Cyr's petition for habeas corpus under existing law, and that since the crime and the conviction had been committed before the new legislation had been enacted, it would have amounted to an ex post facto law to apply it retroactively to St. Cyr. The majority also held that the old law, with its discretionary waiver, remained valid for all other aliens who may have been convicted of a crime prior to the 1996 legislation.

The Court also restricted the INS's ability to detain aliens indefinitely in Zadvydas v. Davis (2001). The Attorney General authorized detention of an alien who had been found to be unlawfully present in the United States beyond the 90-day statutory removal period during which the government ordinarily secures an alien's removal. Kestutis Zadvydas had been born, apparently of Lithuanian parents, in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, and was ordered deported based on his criminal record. However, both Germany and Lithuania refused to accept him, on the ground that he was not a citizen of their countries, and efforts to send him to the Dominican Republic-the country of his wife-also failed. After he had been detained beyond the 90-day removal period expired, he filed a habeas corpus action to challenge his continued detention. Although the district court granted the writ, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, noting that given the unique circumstances, his alien's detention did not violate the Constitution.

The Supreme Court disagreed, and said the law was quite clear that the Attorney General could only detain aliens for the period allowed by law, and such indefinite incarceration raised serious issues under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Nor had Congress given any clear indication that it contemplated excessive detention, even in such unique cases. The 5-4 majority ordered the case sent back for a rehearing, to see whether Zadvydas could be released under conditions.

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