WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in three cases on the rights of foreign-born permanent residents of the United States, two of whom face deportation and a third who was denied re-entry after traveling abroad.
The US government has been deporting record numbers of non-citizens -- nearly 400,000 a year since 2009, according to the Department of Homeland Security -- and legal challenges to these removals have been on the rise.
The Wednesday cases centered around the US Immigration and Nationality Act, which Congress amended in 1996 to make it easier to deport people determined to be "criminal aliens."
Under US law, legal permanent residents that hold "green cards" can live and work in the United States with few restraints, but can be deported under certain circumstances.
In most cases, to avoid deportation lawbreaking permanent residents must have been legal residents for at least five years, have continuously lived in the United States for seven years, and not been convicted of an aggravated felony.
The court first heard two consolidated cases -- Holder v. Gutierrez and Holder v. Sawyers -- both of which challenged the Department of Justice?s decision to deport them.
Carlos Martinez Gutierrez moved to the United States with his parents when he was five, and his father became a legal permanent resident when the defendant was seven. In 2003 Martinez Gutierrez, now 19, became a legal permanent resident.
However in December 2005 Martinez Gutierrez was stopped at the US-Mexico border with three young illegal aliens, and the US government began procedures to deport him for "alien smuggling."
Martinez Gutierrez argued that his father?s immigration status and years of residence could be taken into consideration in meeting eligibility requirements to avoid deportation.
Separately Damien Antonio Sawyers, 15, became a lawful permanent resident in 1995, six years after his mother did so. But the government began deportation proceedings against him in 2002 after Sawyers was convicted of "maintaining a dwelling for keeping controlled substances."
Sawyers also appealed his removal, arguing that the time he spent as a minor living under his legal resident mother should be considered.
"It is always true... that immigration officials have the discretion not to bring removal proceedings in the first place (or) terminate removal proceedings once they have begun," Assistant Solicitor General Leondra Kruger told the justices.
"Current immigration and customs enforcement guidance makes clear that a minor receives particular consideration within the totality of the circumstances" in determining whether discretion is applied, she said.
In a separate case, Greek-born Panagis Vartelas came to the United States in 1979, married a US citizen, became a legal permanent resident in 1989 and has has two US citizen children.
Vartelas however was found guilty in 1994 of counterfeiting traveler?s checks, and was sentenced to four months prison.
In 2003 Vartelas traveled to Greece, and upon return was told that he would be deported under the 1996 rules because he had been convicted of a "crime of moral turpitude" -- even though he would not have been deported had not traveled abroad.
Vartelas's lawyers argued that the law should not apply retroactively.
The court this session is handling several immigration cases, most prominently Arizona v. United States on the authority of states to regulate immigration, which under the US constitution is the responsibility of the federal government.