A legal immigrant convicted of statutory rape doesn’t automatically qualify for deportation, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, saying that a victim must be under 16 years of age for it to be considered an aggravated felony deserving removal under immigration law.
Juan Esquivel-Quintana, a citizen of Mexico and lawful U.S. resident since 2000, was 21 when he had sex with a 17-year-old. He pleaded no contest to a statutory rape charge in California in 2009.
But in a unanimous 8-0 ruling, the justices said that in most states the age of consent is 16, and so for federal purposes the crime of sexual abuse of a minor requires the victim to be under 16. The court’s newest judge, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, did not participate in the case.
The ruling overturned decisions by both an immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which each looked at the laws and said statutory rape did qualify as abuse of a minor.
The Immigration and Nationality Act sets standards for deportation based on the nature of criminal convictions, not on the actual details of a crime.
At the time aggravated felonies were added to the law as deportable offenses, most states had lower ages of consent than California’s 18-year-old limit, the Supreme Court concluded.
“Absent some special relationship of trust, consensual sexual conduct involving a younger partner who is at least 16 years of age does not qualify as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA, regardless of the age differential between the two participants,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the opinion for the court.
He concluded: “In the context of statutory rape offenses that criminalize sexual intercourse based solely on the age of the participants, the generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor requires that the victim be younger than 16.”
Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said this ruling won’t have much of an impact on immigration law because the justices focused on the difference between California’s age for a minor, which was under 18, and the federal age for a minor, which is under 16 — similar to most states.
“It’s not significant because the number of individuals this will apply to is so tiny you can probably count them on one hand,” Mr. Spakovsky said.