Reporting from Washington
The issue before the high court has echoes of last week's debate of Republican presidential contenders, in which Texas Gov. Rick Perry was criticized for his state's policy of giving in-state tuition to students who are illegal immigrants. Perry argued that students who came to Texas through "no fault of their own" should not be denied the benefits of low tuition in the state's colleges.
The case before the high court concerns whether U.S. immigration officials should avoid deporting illegal immigrants who came to this country as minors and, as Perry said, through no fault of their own. The government says it mainly targets criminals for deportation, and the immigrant in this case was arrested for trying to smuggle children across the border.
Courts on the West Coast have blocked deportation orders for some illegal immigrants because their parents had gained permanent-residence status and lived in the United States for more than seven years. Federal law cites these two factors as reasons for halting a deportation. And the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has taken it a step further, deciding that a "parent's status as a lawful permanent resident is imputed" to the "children residing with that parent."
But Obama administration lawyers said the 9th Circuit was the only appeals court to adopt that view, and it was wrong as a matter of law. They urged the Supreme Court to rule that immigrants cannot "rely on a parent's status" as grounds for avoiding deportation.
In appealing the issue, U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. said the 9th Circuit's approach "precludes uniform administration of the immigration laws [and] also impedes the government's high-priority efforts to remove criminal aliens."
The government said it did not have statistics on how often this issue arises. However, it said more than 40% of "all cancellation of removal applications" were filed last year in California and the other eight states where the 9th Circuit had jurisdiction.
The case before the court concerns a Mexican native who came to California in 1989 when he was 5 years old. Carlos Martinez Gutierrez went to elementary and high school in Santa Clara County, and has worked since then at a Kmart and a Costco Wholesale store. In 2005, however, he was arrested after crossing the Mexican border into the United States with three undocumented children in his car. He was charged with attempted alien smuggling and scheduled for deportation.
But an immigration judge canceled his deportation, citing the fact that Martinez's father had been a lawful permanent resident in 1991 and that Martinez had grown up in his father's home.
Disputing this decision, Verrilli said Martinez could not rely on his father's permanent residence to ward off deportation.
Washington lawyer Stephen Kinnaird, who has urged the court to uphold the 9th Circuit's decision, said its approach was "important for maintaining the family-unity policy in our immigration laws."
The high court said it would hear the case of Holder vs. Martinez Gutierrez early next year.