In 1996, Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) that held that legal permanent residents who had been convicted of a crime and had travelled abroad were eligible to face permanent removal proceedings. The question that the Court faced in Vartelas v. Holder was whether the IIRIRA applies retroactively to lawful permanent residents who were convicted of a crime and left the United States before enactment of the 1996 law. The Court held that the governing law at the time of conviction and not the IIRIRA applies. Read the opinion here.
Panagis Vartelas became a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 1989. In 1994, he pleaded guilty to the felony of conspiring to make a counterfeit security and served four months in prison. At the time of the guilty plea, a lawful permanent resident in Vartelas’ situation could briefly depart the United States without jeopardizing his status. In 1996, Congress changed the governing law. According to the IIRIRA, lawful permanent residents with convictions like Vartelas’ became eligible for removal proceedings upon departure from the country. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(13)(C)(v). In 2003, Vartelas travelled to Greece to visit family and became subject to this provision of the IIRIRA. He was treated as an inadmissible alien and placed in removal proceedings.
The IIRIRA combined exclusion and deportation proceedings into the all-encompassing category of removal proceedings. It did so by resting on the definition of the word “admission.” “Admission” is defined as “the lawful entry on the alien into the United States after inspection and authorization by an immigration officer.” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(13)(A). . This “admission” can occur at the moment of first entry to the United States but also applies to a lawful permanent resident’s reentry after a brief sojourn outside of the United States. An alien who has been convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude,” such as Vartelas, would have to seek “admission” to the United States after even the briefest trip abroad. See 8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(2)(A)(i)
Upon review of Vartelas’ case, the Second Circuit affirmed the Board of Immigration Appeal’s (BIA) holding that the IIRIRA governed the current case. This created a split with the Fourth and Ninth Circuits that previously held that the IIRIRA did not govern retroactively and that it did not apply to convictions of crimes listed in § 1182 that occurred prior to IIRIRA’s enactment. The Supreme Court resolved this split in favor of the Fourth and Ninth Circuits’ perspective and remained consistent with the Court’s tendency to avoid the retroactive application of laws unless explicitly mandated by Congress. See Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244 (1994). The Court reversed and remanded.
Justice Scalia dissented. He claimed that the case merely presented a situation of straightforward statutory interpretation and that there was no question of retroactivity. Because Vartelas returned to the United States after the IIRIRA was enacted, the statute did not have the impermissible retroactive effect that the majority contended. The statute was intended to regulate the act of admission of lawful permanent residents into the United States, not the conviction of a crime of “moral turpitude.” Because the Act was meant to regulate admission to the United States and Vartelas attempted admission after the IIRIRA was passed, there was no retroactive effect. Under Justice Scalia’s reasoning, the Second Circuit’s decision should have been affirmed.Authored by: Ann-Christine Stepien, Cornell Law School