Reyna Jacobs, center, and others light candles during a vigil last week… (Joe Raedle, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court refused Wednesday to block the deportation of a Chicago woman and thousands of other immigrants who before 2010 were not warned by their lawyers when they pleaded guilty to serious crimes and were targeted for removal.
The decision highlights the stark consequences for noncitizens of having a criminal record. The law calls for mandatory deportation for immigrants, including lawful residents, who have an "aggravated felony" on their record. The term can describe a variety of state and federal offenses.
Immigration lawyers say tens of thousands of immigrants, many of them lawful permanent residents, plead guilty each year to crimes that may lead to deportation. In many instances, they were not warned of the consequences of such a plea.
Three years ago, the high court extended relief to some immigrants when it ruled that they could seek a new trial if their lawyers had failed to warn them of the dire consequences of a guilty plea.
But in a 7-2 ruling Wednesday, the justices refused to apply the ruling retroactively to cases of immigrants who had unwittingly pleaded guilty before 2010.
The ruling came in the case of Roselva Chaidez, a Chicago woman who was born in Mexico. She has been a lawful permanent resident since 1977 and has three children and two grandchildren, all of whom are U.S. citizens.
In 2003, she agreed to plead guilty to two counts of mail fraud for what the government said was her minor role in an insurance fraud. Her son and several others staged an auto accident, and Chaidez received $1,200 from an insurance company for a claim of an injury that was false.
She was sentenced to probation and was required to help repay $22,000, the total amount of the insurance fraud. She completed her sentence and had paid her restitution by 2004.
When she later applied for naturalization, she denied having been convicted of a crime. Only then did she learn that pleading guilty to mail fraud involving more than $10,000 meant that she was subject to deportation.
Chaidez filed a court petition in 2009 seeking to have her conviction overturned on the grounds that her lawyer failed to warn her of the consequences of her guilty plea. She could have argued that because she obtained only $1,200, her crime did not meet the $10,000 threshold for what the law deems an "aggravated felony." Her new lawyer pointed to the high court's ruling in Padilla vs. Kentucky, which held that a lawyer had a constitutional duty to warn immigrants when they faced deportation for a guilty plea.
In Chicago, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled for Chaidez and set aside her conviction. But the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in a 2-1 decision and said the Chicago woman could not take advantage of the high court's new ruling to challenge her old conviction.
Ruling in Chaidez vs. United States, the Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court and said its 2010 decision could not be applied retroactively to upset old plea deals.
Justice Elena Kagan said that the 2010 ruling amounted to a major change in the law, and the court has not applied such changes retroactively to old cases. "Defendants whose convictions became final prior to Padilla therefore cannot benefit from its holding," she said.
The ruling marked a rare split between President Obama's two appointees. While Kagan spoke for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sotomayor argued that the 2010 decision simply made clear that lawyers had a duty to advise their clients on the law. "Today's decision deprives defendants of the fundamental protection" that goes with having a competent lawyer, she said.
The Chicago lawyer who represented Chaidez in her appeal, Gerardo Gutierrez, said, "Obviously, we are disappointed. This will have an immediate, adverse impact on a lot of immigrant families."
Charles Roth, counsel for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said, "It is now in the hands of the Obama administration and Congress to keep this family together, as well as hundreds of others who at least deserve consideration of whether a run-in with the law enforcement more than a decade ago outweighs the good they have since contributed to our society."
Applauding the ruling, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California said the court acted to "limit the damage caused by the discovery of new rules of laws" so as not to reopen tens of thousands of settled cases.