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Is It Mandatory To Detain An Aggravated Felon?

by Cyrus D. Mehta, et al.

Matt and his buddies are members of Delta Tau Delta at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. During the fall semester, these fraternity boys came up with a "brilliant" plan to take a road trip to Windsor, Ontario. After all, what could be more fun than a weekend of drunken debauchery and classy casinos in that booming metropolis outside of Detroit?

Because Matt, a lawful permanent resident and a native of China, knew it would be the highlight of his Senior year, he immediately included his old friend, Samer, in the plans. This was going to be a weekend to remember. Samer, a native of Lebanon and a resident of Canada, agreed and decided to drive down and join the group. He skipped his Friday afternoon class at McGill University and headed to Windsor.

Friday night was indeed a blast, but the boys lost a lot of money. On Saturday morning, they decided to cut their losses and head back to Cleveland. Samer didn't have class on Monday and asked if he could head back with them for a few days. Incapable of saying no to a friend, or to a good time, Matt extended a warm welcome to his friend.

However, there was one problem. Samer was not a Canadian Citizen. He couldn't just cross the Freedom Bridge with his friends. He needed a visa to enter the United States but did not have one. Not a problem according to the President of Delta Tau Delta, who knew of a short waterway in northern Michigan. "Just swim across and we'll be there to meet you. Come on, it will be hilarious and it'll make an awesome story to tell the brothers back at school."

And thus begins the tragic demise of Windsor Weekend 2007. The frat boys crossed the border and waited at the beach to pick up their friend. Samer emerged from the water, jumped in the back of Matt's brand new KIA and suddenly sirens went off in the car behind them. The boys were arrested. Matt, a non-citizen, was hit with double charges - both criminal and immigration.

Suppose that by now Matt has a conviction for conspiracy to transport an illegal alien within the U.S. in violation of INA 274(a)(1)(A)(ii) and (a)(1)(A)(v)(I) after a plea bargain. The federal judge imposed no period of probation, nor a period of supervised release. Matt was arrested only briefly at the time of apprehension and was released on bail prior to entry of his plea agreement. In spite of the fact that he had served no jail time, Matt was placed into immigration removal proceedings because the government contended that his conviction amounted to an aggravated felony as defined under 101(a)(43)(N) and (U) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as a crime "relating to alien smuggling."

After some preliminary research, Matt's counsel would find that the BIA, in Matter of Ruiz-Romero, 22 I&N Dec. 486 (BIA 1999), aff'd Ruiz-Romero v. Reno, 205 F.3d 837 (5th Cir. 2000), has held that a conviction under INA 274(a)(1)(A)(ii) constitutes a crime "relating to alien smuggling" under INA 101(a)(43)(N), even though the offense pertained to the transportation of a noncitizen within the United States and not smuggling him into the country. If he were found to be an aggravated felon, Matt would be deported from the United States and be permanently barred from re-entering the country.

Adding insult to injury the aggravated felony charge invokes the mandatory detention provisions of the INA. So, Matt not only faces removal, but also mandatory detention through completion of removal proceedings, which could take months or years. If he is not successful in fighting the removal charge, he will remain detained until the government deports him to China.

Helping Matt

So what is Matt to do? Immigration detention facilities can be terrifying places. They are nothing like the facilities that incarcerate the likes of Martha Stewart or Paris Hilton. Also, Matt is in his final semester of college, and has a promising career in front of him. But all he sees in the future is a small cell surrounded by hardened offenders.

At the master calendar hearing, Matt's counsel will enter the pleadings, indicate an intention to challenge the aggravated felony charge and terminate removal proceedings as Matt is otherwise a lawful permanent resident (aka green card). The Immigration Judge ("IJ") will schedule the next hearing and set forth a briefing schedule to support counsel's termination motion. However, upon exiting the courtroom, Matt may very well be picked up by USICE officers, who lurk in the shadows of the federal buildings.

USICE's detention authority derives from section 236(c) of the INA, which states as follows:

The Attorney General shall take into custody any alien who-
  1. is inadmissible by reason of having committed any offense covered in section 1182 (a)(2) of this title,
  2. is deportable by reason of having committed any offense covered in section 1227(a)(2)(A)(ii), (A)(iii), (B), (C), or (D) of this title,
  3. is deportable under section 1227 (a)(2)(A)(i) of this title on the basis of an offense for which the alien has been sentence [sic] to a term of imprisonment of at least 1 year, or
  4. is inadmissible under section 1182 (a)(3)(B) of this title or deportable under section 1227 (a)(4)(B) of this title,
when the alien is released, without regard to whether the alien is released on parole, supervised release, or probation, and without regard to whether the alien may be arrested or imprisoned again for the same offense.
INA 236(c) (emphasis added). By way of translation, although the mandatory detention provisions related to excludable noncitizens are fairly sweeping, the provisions related to deportable noncitizens include only those considered by the government to be aggravated felons. Finally, the mandatory detention provisions allow for a limited exception where release from custody is necessary to provide protection to persons cooperating with law enforcement authorities investigating "major" criminal activity, as well as their immediate family members, if the Attorney General is satisfied that the noncitizen will not pose a danger to the safety of other persons or of property and is likely to appear for any scheduled proceeding. Id.

Obtaining a Hearing to Challenge Mandatory Detention

In Denmore v. Kim, 538 U.S. 510 (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court abrogated a line of cases that came from the Third, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeals, and held that the detention without bail provision of INA 236(c) did not violate the Fifth Amendment proscription against deprivation liberty without due process of law. [1] Denmore, 538 U.S. at 528-531. The Court sanctioned the detention of criminal noncitizens for the brief period necessary to complete their removal proceedings, even without the government providing individualized determinations as to whether each presented a flight risk. [2] The Court reasoned that Congress was justifiably concerned that deportable, criminal noncitizens permitted to remain at large would continue to engage in criminal activity and were likely to abscond before their removal hearings. [3] Id.

A noncitizen may seek a determination by an IJ that he or she is not properly included within any of the categories that require mandatory detention during a Joseph Hearing. [4] 8 C.F.R. 1003.19(h)(ii). In Matter of Joseph, 22 I&N Dec. 799 (BIA 1989), the Board of Immigration Appeals ("BIA") held that an alien is not subject to mandatory detention if the IJ or the BIA finds that the Service is "substantially unlikely" to establish a charge of deportability in the merits hearing, or on appeal, which would otherwise subject the alien to mandatory detention. The majority noted that the respondent, a lawful permanent resident, would have otherwise been free to reside and work in the United States "but for the pendency of the aggravated felony charge brought by the Service." Id. at 805. Therefore, the fact that the Service "could prevail" at the merits hearing was insufficient, standing alone, to defeat the safeguard provided in the regulations.

The members of the Board in Matter of Joseph were divided, however, on what the proper standard ought to be. Chairman Paul W. Schmidt, joined by Fred W. Vacca, Gustavo D. Villaeliu, Lory D. Rosenberg and John Guendelsberger, concurred in part and dissented in part by opining that the standard should not be that the Service is "substantially unlikely" to establish the charge that subjects an alien to mandatory detention, but rather "whether the Service has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its charge that the respondent is removable because of an aggravated felony." Id. at 809 (emphasis added).

Matt's counsel will immediately request the Immigration Judge to schedule a Joseph Hearing to determine whether Matt was properly included under one of the mandatory detention categories.

Although Matt would be precluded from challenging the constitutionality of INA 236(c), under Denmore, Matt's attorney may still assert several legal arguments to win his release during the pendency of his removal proceedings. First counsel could argue that Matt is not subject to mandatory detention because he was not ever actually "released" from custody. Second, counsel could contest the government's charge that Matt's conviction under INA 274(a)(1)(A)(ii) constitutes a crime "relating to alien smuggling" under a plain reading of INA 101(a)(43)(N), and thus, is not an aggravated felony.

If There Was No Release, There Is No Mandatory Detention

As quoted above, under INA 236(c), the Attorney General is required to take into custody any noncitizen who is deportable by reason of having committed a crime considered to be an aggravated felony "when the alien is released, without regard to whether the alien is released on parole, supervised release, or probation, and without regard to whether the alien may be arrested or imprisoned again for the same offense." INA 236(c)(1)(B) (emphasis added).

Because Matt was never taken into custody following his conviction, but rather the district court judge imposed no sentence whatsoever and declined to order supervised release or probation, Matt is not subject to the mandatory detention. He was not "released," as is required by section 236(c). A plain reading of section 236(c) suggests that this provision triggers only "when the alien is released" post-conviction and post-sentencing, and not upon the initial release following his arrest. The government will argue that release even after a pre-conviction arrest is sufficient to trigger mandatory detention. Cf. In re West, 22 I&N Dec. 1405, 1408 (BIA 2000) (although the alien was deemed to be released after his pre-conviction arrest, he was nevertheless sentenced to probation following his conviction); In Re Kotliar, 24 I&N Dec. 124 (BIA 2007) (holding that 8 U.S.C. 1226(c) triggers when an alien is released from any form of custody even if it is prior to conviction, and that the alien need not be charged with the ground that provides the basis for mandatory detention).

In Re Kotliar, 24 I&N Dec. 124, is distinguishable on its facts from Matt's case in that the respondent of Kotliar was previously sentenced to a period of probation and re-arrested for violation of his earlier, conditional release. The BIA specifically noted in Kotliar, "it is obvious from the record that [the respondent] must have been detained at some time after his conviction in 2002." Id. at 125.

Also, the language following the word "release" indicates that a preliminary arrest is irrelevant to the question of whether Respondent is subject to mandatory detention. This language, "without regard to whether the alien is released on parole, supervised release, or probation, and without regard to whether the alien may be arrested or imprisoned again for the same offense" refers qualified methods of release that only pertain after a conviction has been entered. The possibility that that the alien may be arrested again for the same offense merely accounts for circumstances where the alien violates the conditions imposed when released as subject to one of these qualified methods. To read the statute otherwise, and to equate a preliminary arrest with physical custody, makes this clause of the statute completely superfluous. [5]

As Matt was not subject to removal until a conviction was entered, it would be contrary to the ordinary meaning of the word "release" for this provision of the statute to take effect prior to a conviction. West is easily distinguishable in Matt's case because that case focused more on whether a noncitizen's release prior to the effective date of INA 236(c) would subject him to mandatory detention. Kotliar is somewhat more difficult to distinguish. However, Matt was never sentenced to any period of confinement as a result of his conviction, and therefore, counsel could maintain, notwithstanding Kotliar, that he was not ever, in fact, released from physical custody.

"Release" must be understood from its ordinary meaning, and such a phrase would become superfluous if Congress intended that all noncitizens convicted of crimes alleged to be aggravated felonies were subject to mandatory detention, regardless of whether a sentence is imposed or not. Under such a ridiculously broad construction of the statute, any kind of pre-conviction custodial setting, including a ride in a police vehicle, would trigger section 236(c). Finally, the rule of lenity should be applied in interpreting section 236(c), and any ambiguities in the phrase "when the alien is released" should be resolved in Matt's favor.

Transportation Is Not An Aggravated Felony Under A Plain Meaning Of Section 101(a)(43)(N)

Matt's counsel would also argue that it is substantially unlikely that the government will prevail in establishing that Matt's conviction will be characterized as an aggravated felony.

In accordance with recent Supreme Court jurisprudence, the aggravated felony provisions of INA 101(a)(43) should be interpreted under their plain, or ordinary, meaning. During the past three years, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted two aggravated felony provisions in 101(a)(43) under the ordinary, or plain meaning approach. Leocal v. Ashcroft, 543 U.S. 1 (2004); Lopez v. Gonzales, 127 S.Ct. 625, 166 L.Ed. 2d 462 (Dec. 5, 2006).

In Leocal, 543 U.S. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court held, using the plain and ordinary meaning approach, that a DUI offense could not be categorized as a "crime of violence" under 18 U.S.C. 16, and thus an aggravated felony under 101(a)(43)(F). The Court reasoned that the plain meaning of the word "use" in "use of physical force against the person or property of another" could not encompass accidental, harmful conduct resulting from a DUI offense sufficiently to characterize the offense as a crime of violence included in 18 U.S.C. 16. The following extract of the Court's decision is worth noting:
In construing both parts of 16, we cannot forget that we ultimately are determining the meaning of the term "crime of violence." The ordinary meaning of this term, combined with 16's emphasis on the use of physical force against another person (or the risk of having to use such force in committing a crime), suggests a category of violent, active crimes that cannot be said naturally to include DUI offenses. Interpreting 16 to encompass accidental or negligent conduct would blur the distinction between the "violent" crimes Congress sought to distinguish for heightened punishment and other crimes.
Id. at 11 (internal citations omitted). The Court further noted that since it had to apply 16 to both criminal and civil (deportation) contexts, the statute must be interpreted consistently, and the rule of lenity applies. [6] Id. at 12.

More recently, the Supreme Court in Lopez, 127 S.Ct. 625, reminded the government that the ordinary meaning of the word "trafficking" implied some sort of commercial dealing, and thus Lopez' South Dakota possession conviction, although a felony under state law, did not imply any commercial dealing and could not be considered as an aggravated felony pursuant to 101(a)(43)(B).

It is a well established doctrine that cases interpreting statutes are "fully retroactive because they do not change the law, but rather explain what the law has always meant." See e.g. United States v. Rivera-Nevarez, 418 F.3d 1104, 1107 (10th Cir. 2005). Moreover, the Supreme Court has more generally pronounced that "[w]hen this Court applies a rule of federal law to the parties before it, that rule is the controlling interpretation of federal law and must be given full retroactive effect in all cases open on direct review and as to all events, regardless of whether such events predate or postdate our announcement of the rule." See Harper v. Virginia Dept. of Taxation, 509 U.S. 86, 97 (1993). The BIA has also held that immigration courts are bound by federal court precedents. See Matter of Anselmo, 20 I&N Dec. 25 (BIA 1989).

Under the plain, or ordinary, meaning doctrine, it could be argued that Matter of Ruiz-Romero, 22 I&N Dec. 486 has been implicitly overruled, as the majority did not follow the Supreme Court's "plain meaning" interpretation of the statute. [7] In Ruiz-Romero, the majority opined that the phrase "relating to alien smuggling" was a descriptive phrase, providing the reader with an accurate guidance to the offenses described in 274(a)(1)(A), rather than a limiting phrase. Id. at 489. The majority further noted that other provisions of 101(a)(43) had similar descriptive phrases in parentheses, such as the phrase "relating to gambling offenses" in 101(a)(43)(J). [8] By analogizing "relating to alien smuggling" with similar phrases in other sections of 101(a)(43), the majority failed to employ the plain meaning approach embraced by Leocal and Lopez in interpreting the specific meaning of "relating to alien smuggling" relative to the broad group of offenses in 274(a)(1)(A) and (2). It would seem that Lory Rosenberg's dissent, joined by Fred W. Vacca, has more force post-Leocal:
The language of section 274(a) is plain; it articulates clearly a list of offenses and needs no parenthetical modification to "provide() the reader accurate guidance as to the nature and extent of the offenses referenced." Matter of Ruiz-Romero, Interim Decision 3376, at 5 (BIA 1998).

In my opinion, the parenthetical language is not "merely descriptive." Id. (emphasis added). It is descriptive in a narrowing sense, focusing the reader's attention on a subgroup of offenses covered by section 274(a) that Congress deemed to constitute offenses that qualified for categorization as aggravated felony convictions. This conclusion is supported by several principles of statutory construction that we are bound to follow, including the rule of lenity.

The crime of transporting has distinct elements which do not involve the secret, illicit, or unlawful importing or "bringing in" of an alien, or inducing him to enter in violation of law... Transporting, after an alien enters, comes to, or remains unlawfully, is transporting after a smuggling incident occurred, if one occurred at all.

Our reasoning in these precedents supports the view that while certain preparatory offenses such as aiding and abetting or conspiracy to bring an alien to the country or encourage him to enter would be an offense "relating to alien smuggling," a crime like transporting, which is a separate and distinct criminal offense and has its own unique legal elements, is not necessarily one relating to alien smuggling.

Matter of Ruiz-Romero, 22 I&N Dec. at 497, 501-503 (Lory D. Rosenberg dissenting) (emphasis added).

A plain reading of the statute provides a clear demarcation between the essential elements of alien smuggling and transportation offenses. Thus, as opposed to INA 274(a)(1)(A)(i), subsections (a)(1)(A)(ii) and (v) do not obviously constitute crimes "relating to alien smuggling." The majority failed to analyze that the crime of transporting has elements different from smuggling. Smuggling involves the bringing of an alien into the United States. [9] On the other hand, the transportation offense in 274(a)(1)(A)(ii) involves moving or transporting an alien who has already "come to, entered, or remains in the US in violation of law..." The majority opinion is devoid of any analysis as to whether the essential elements of a transportation crime had any similarities to the essential elements of a smuggling crime. [10]

Under the plain meaning doctrine, it is reasonable to assume that Congress meant to limit the several offenses in 274(a) to those actually relating to alien smuggling and not to every offense under 274(a). Finally, as instructed by the Supreme Court in Leocal, the majority failed to use the principle of lenity in interpreting an ambiguous statue in favor of the alien in removal proceedings. See also INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 448 (1987).


Matt has an extremely uphill battle ahead of him. If he prevails, and the Immigration Judge orders him released, the government can override the IJ's decision and invoke the automatic stay provision by intending to appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals. [11] He will then remain detained until the BIA rules in his favor. Whether Matt obtains an unfavorable ruling from the IJ or the Service appeals a favorable ruling, Matt also has the option of filing a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2241, to challenge his detention while the government appeals its case. [12]

Of course, if Matt ultimately prevails that he is not subject to detention, as he is not likely to be found to be an aggravated felon, his chances of winning on the merits are wonderful. Thus, fighting the mandatory detention ground and winning is an important battle in Matt's struggle to rid himself of removal charges and continue to partake in Delta Tau Delta activities.


1 See Patel v. Zemski, 275 F.3d 299 (3rd Cir. 2001); Welch v. Ashcroft, 293 F.3d 213 (4th Cir. 2002); Hoang v. Comfort, 282 F.3d 1247 (10th Cir. 2002).

2 Importantly, the Court noted that INA 236(e), which states, "No court may set aside any action or decision by the Attorney General under this section regarding the detention or release of any alien or the grant, revocation, or denial of bond or parole," did not bar habeas challenges to 236(c) detention determinations.

3 Denmore has since been limited in both the Circuit Courts of Appeals and the U.S. District Courts, through use of habeas proceedings. See Tijani v. Willis, 430 F.3d 1241 (9th Cir. 2005); Ly v. Hansen, 351 F.3d 263 (6th Cir. 2003); Uritsky v. Ridge, 286 F.Supp.2d 842 (E. D. Mich. 2003); Parlak v. Baker, 374 F.Supp.2d 551 (E.D. Mich. 2005). Interestingly, as habeas is an equitable exercise of judicial authority, the analyses provided in these cases focuses on the likelihood the detainee would abscond if released and the danger s/he would present to the community, as well as the reasonability of the length of detention.

4 The U.S. Supreme Court, in Denmore, acknowledged that limited review of a custody determination was available through a Joseph Hearing. However, it declined to review the adequacy of Joseph hearings because the respondent in Denmore had conceded deportability based upon a conviction that triggered INA 1226(c). Denmore, 538 U.S. at 513 (footnote 3). Nevertheless, the Court seemed satisfied that a degree of individualized review was available to screen out those noncitizens who were improperly detained pursuant to 1226(c) to find this provision of the statute to be constitutional.

5 See Mary E. Kramer, Immigration Consequences of Criminal Activity, A Guide to Representing Foreign-Born Defendants, pp. 61-62, American Immigration Lawyers Association.

6 Specifically, the Court stated, "Because we must interpret the statute consistently, whether we encounter its application in a criminal or noncriminal context, the rule of lenity applies." Leocal, 543 U.S. at 12. These principles of statutory construction strongly undermine the civil/criminal dichotomy upon which the BIA distinguished its earlier decision in Matter of I-M-, 7 I&N Dec. 389 (BIA 1957) (holding that the crime of "transporting" was not a deportable offense), and found transportation to constitute a ground for removability as an aggravated felony. In re Ruiz-Romero, 22 I&N Dec. 486 at 491-492.

7 While Ruiz-Romero has been affirmed by the Fifth Circuit in Ruiz-Romero v. Reno, 205 F.3d 837 (5th Cir. 2000) and the Ninth Circuit in US v. Galindo-Gallegos, 244 F.3d 728 (9th Cir. 2001), both of these decisions were rendered before the Supreme Court's pronouncements in Leocal and Lopez.

8 It could be argued that Congress intended to limit the offenses triggering the aggravated felony consequences in the underlying federal statutes by adopting "relating to ___" language in parenthesis whenever the these federal statutes are cited in the sub-sections of 101(a)(43). Moreover, the term, "relating to" occurs even without parenthesis in 101(a)(43)(K)(i), (Q), (S),(T), further bolstering the dissent's position that the term is limiting rather than descriptive.

Of note, in an unpublished decision, the Board of Immigration Appeals ("BIA") decided around the same time as Matter of Ruiz-Romero, that a conviction under 18 U.S.C. 1546(a) for conspiracy to possess false immigration documents may not be construed as a crime "relating to fraud and misuse of visas, permits, and other entry documents." In re Vazquez-Gonzalez, A92 593 325 (BIA March 22, 1999). Although this case is not binding authority, it provides an example where the BIA has inconsistently construed the phrase "relating to" as merely descriptive in some instances while limiting in others. More important, the BIA acknowledged in Vazquez-Gonzalez that it used the categorical approach to statutory interpretation in Ruiz-Romero, which is no longer valid after Leocal.

9 The "alien smuggling" ground of inadmissibility and deportability at INA 212(a)(6)(E) and 237(a)(1)(E) is defined as knowingly encouraging, inducing, assisting, abetting, or aiding an alien to enter or to try to enter the United States in violation of the law. See Matter of I-M-, supra, holding that a conviction for transporting an legal alien was not a deportable offense under former 241(a)(13) of the INA.

10 The concurrence also disagreed with the majority that the words, "relating to alien smuggling," are merely descriptive and perform no limiting function, and thus a conviction under INA 274(a) with no nexus to a smuggling offense would not be an aggravated felony. Matter of Ruiz-Romero, 22 I&N Dec. at 493 (Gustavo D. Villageliu concurring).

11 8 CFR 1003.19(i)(2).

12 The Sixth Circuit, despite Demore v. Kim, 538 U.S. 510, upholding the constitutionality of mandatory detention, expressed concerns that deportable aliens may not be indefinitely detained without the government showing a strong special justification. See Ly v. Hansen, 351 F.3d 263.

This article originally appeared on on June 10, 2007.

About The Author

Cyrus D. Mehta a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City and is the managing member of Cyrus D. Mehta & Associates, P.L.L.C. He is the Past Chair of the Board of Trustees of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award. He is also Secretary of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and former Chair of the Committee on Immigration and Nationality Law of the same Association. He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities.

Elizabeth T. Reichard is an Associate at Cyrus D. Mehta and Associates, P.L.L.C, where she practices primarily in the area of immigration law. She is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and Case Western Reserve School of Law, where she was the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Law. Ms. Reichard is the Secretary of the Immigration Committee for the New York City Bar Association as well as the Secretary of the Board of International Partners in Mission, an international non-profit organization working to empower women, children, and youth. She is admitted to the bar of the State of New York.

Adam Ketcher is an Associate at Cyrus D. Mehta & Associates, PLLC where he practices immigration and nationality law. He received his J.D. in 2006 from Brooklyn Law School where he assisted with research for an upcoming casebook on international refugee law and was the recipient of the Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship. Adam has worked as a legal intern for Catholic Charities Immigrant and Refugee Department, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, and as a summer law clerk for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, New York City Immigration Court. His application for admission to the New York State Bar is currently pending.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.