WASHINGTON—A Lebanese immigrant who committed felonies after receiving his green card shouldn’t be deported because he will face religious persecution and torture if removed to his native land, the man’s lawyer told the Supreme Court.
The Trump administration opposes the man’s bid to stay in the United States.
On the 2016 campaign trail, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump vowed to get tough on those who violate U.S. immigration laws and on noncitizens who commit serious crimes in the United States.
“Our enforcement priorities will include removing criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, public charges,” Trump said at the time.
Oral arguments in the case, known as Nasrallah v. Barr, were heard March 2 by the nation’s highest court.
A ruling against the government could make it more difficult to deport criminal aliens in the future.
The justices may have to weigh potentially conflicting legal provisions as they decide whether administrative determinations about claims made under the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) count as final deportation orders. Federal legislation implementing the convention prevents criminal aliens from being sent to countries where they are likely to be tortured.
Petitioner Nidal Khalid Nasrallah’s American story begins in 2007 when he became a lawful U.S. permanent resident. He purchased cigarettes he believed were stolen that had a total wholesale value of $587,096, in eight transactions from undercover federal agents. Facing eight felony counts of receiving stolen property, he pleaded guilty to two of them in 2013 and was sentenced to one year of prison time.
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) states that an alien “convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude committed within five years” of the alien’s admission, for which “a sentence of one year or longer may be imposed,” is removable from the United States. The INA also strips courts of jurisdiction to review final deportation orders for criminal aliens found guilty of crimes deemed aggravated felonies under the law.
The government determined Nasrallah’s convictions qualified as aggravated felonies under the INA and an immigration judge found he was subject to deportation because he had committed crimes involving moral turpitude. The judge said cigarette trafficking was a heinous crime that posed a danger to society. The judge added that this kind of crime was also connected to terrorist activity and organized crime, even though there is no evidence linking this individual to such activities.
Nasrallah argues that the likelihood of his facing religious persecution outweighs his criminal history. Because he is a member of the Druze religious minority, he claims he may be persecuted in Lebanon by Muslim terrorist groups such as Hezbollah if returned there.
“The United States has made a firm commitment that our deportation system is not going to be used to send an individual to a place where they are more likely than not to be subject to … torture or death,” Nasrallah’s attorney, Paul Hughes, told the Supreme Court.
On the way to the high court, an immigration judge ruled Nasrallah’s felony convictions made him ineligible for asylum and withholding of removal but granted him a reprieve from removal only with respect to Lebanon, stating he could still “be removed at any time to another country where he is not likely to be tortured.”
The Board of Immigration Appeals reversed the reprieve, finding his “single encounter with Hezbollah did not constitute past torture and that generalized civil strife in Lebanon did not show” he would be personally targeted for harm. Then, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the INA deprived it of jurisdiction to review “any final order of removal against an alien who is removable by reason of having committed” certain crimes.
During oral arguments, Justice Neil Gorsuch characterized Trump administration lawyer Matthew Guarnieri’s argument that a claim under the torture convention could be distinguished from a final deportation order as “pretty metaphysical.”
“It’s like the Holy Trinity,” the justice quipped to laughter from the courtroom audience.
Guarnieri said, “The order of removal remains valid even if the alien is granted CAT protection.”
“We think it is part of the final order of removal. It is an integral and constituent part of the final order of removal.”
Guarnieri argued the law was clear.
He told Justice Stephen Breyer that the government does “not think the statutory text is ambiguous. We think Congress unambiguously foreclosed judicial review of final orders of removal with respect to criminal aliens.”