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Sept. 27, 2006, 1:11PM
Justices to clarify deportation rules
Court's decision will help determine what crimes are enough to expel legal immigrants

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a California case that should help clarify when legal immigrants convicted of relatively minor crimes can be automatically deported.

The case, to be argued this year or early next year, is the third case the court has accepted to interpret the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was intended to make it easier for the federal government to expel immigrants who commit crimes.
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Next Tuesday, the justices will hear similar cases involving Mexican nationals convicted of drug possession one in Texas, another in South Dakota.

The case accepted this week, Gonzales v. Duenas-Alvarez, involves a Peruvian immigrant who was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to three years in prison for aiding and abetting an auto theft.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Luis Alexander Duenas-Alvarez's conviction did not amount to a conviction for the broader crime of auto theft, which is an "aggravated felony" that triggers automatic deportation.

The U.S. government contends that the ruling was incorrect. If the justices don't overturn it, the Bush administration argues in court papers, the decision will have "a substantial effect on the administration of the immigration laws."

An estimated 8,000 immigrants in the seven Western states covered by the 9th Circuit are subject to deportation for theft offenses, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In court papers, Solicitor General Paul Clement wrote that the government's ability to remove those criminal immigrants "has been called into serious doubt."

Immigrants' advocates are expected to argue in the cases that some provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act are unfair because they effectively impose deportation as an extra penalty. Consequently, they say, criminals who are immigrants are treated more harshly than others who commit the same crimes.

Congress has attempted this year to clarify that the immigration law is meant to apply to cases where a person is convicted for aiding and abetting.