WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with a Mexican immigrant who faced deportation after he was convicted of having consensual sex with his underage girlfriend.
The justices ruled unanimously that while Juan Esquivel-Quintana committed a crime under California law, his conduct did not violate federal immigration law.
The opinion comes as the Trump administration steps up enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, including deporting those who commit crimes. Immigration arrests have increased 38 percent this year, compared with a similar period last year.
California law makes it a crime to have sex with anyone under 18 if the age difference is more than three years. That applied to Esquivel-Quintana, who had sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend before and after his 21st birthday.
But Esquivel-Quintana said his conduct would have been legal under federal law and the laws of 43 other states that are less strict. The government argued that courts should defer to immigration officials in interpreting laws that are vague.
Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said the generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor requires the victim to be younger than 16. Since Esquivel-Quintana’s conduct did not constitute sexual abuse under federal immigration laws, Thomas said the state conviction did not count as an aggravated felony and he could not be deported.
Esquivel-Quintana moved to the United States with his family when he was 12 and became a lawful permanent resident. He served 90 days in jail after pleading no contest to the California charges involving sex with a minor.
He later moved to Michigan, where federal officials began deportation proceedings. Immigration officials said he was convicted of “sexual abuse of a minor” — a deportable offense under federal immigration laws.
An immigration judge said he should be deported and the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed. A divided federal appeals court affirmed that ruling.
Esquivel-Quintana has been living in Mexico since being deported but now plans to return to the U.S., his lawyer, Michael Carlin, said.
Justice Neil Gorsuch took no part in the case, which was argued before he joined the Supreme Court.