A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a unanimous 8-0 decision that spoke to the very sticky deportation case of Juan Esquivel-Quintana and the way that well-meaning laws can have unintended consequences.
The premise of the case goes like this: Juan Esquivel-Quintana was a legal immigrant from Mexico who was residing in the state of California. Whereas many US demarcate age 16 as the legal age for sexual consent, California raised theirs to age 18, where it has stayed since 1939. At age 21, Esquivel-Quintana had consensual sex with his girlfriend, who was just shy of 18 years old at the time. However, because of their age disparity, Esquivel-Quintana was charged with statutory rape and subsequently was convicted.
Under immigration law, immigrants of legal status have to abide by US laws or else be deported back to their home country. In some cases, the legal transgression is minor enough to ignore, in others, it requires its own deportation hearing, and in one category, it’s grounds for immediate deportation. “Aggravated sexual abuse of a minor” is one of those major infractions that can lead to automatic deportation, and since Esquivel-Quintana was found guilty of statutory rape, the federal government sought to deport him. As the federal laws are written and enforced by the Attorney General, Esquivel-Quintana had to return to Mexico.
Naturally, Esquivel-Quintana felt that consensual sex did not, in fact, constitute aggravated sexual abuse of a minor because California is one of only six states with such a high age of consent, and his girlfriend testified that nothing happened without her verbal consent. Jeffrey Fisher argued for Esquivel-Quintana before the Supreme Court in their appeal to have the deportation decision reversed.
A central issue in the case came down to who in fact has the final say in interpreting what actions constitute “sexual abuse of a minor.” The Court established Chevron Deference in the 1980s as a precedent for deferring to the experts. In his interview with Dahlia Lithwick on her Supreme Court podcast Amicus, Jeffrey Fisher gives the example of mercury poisoning. Laws or decisions may be passed that instruct companies not to pollute water with mercury, but the EPA has the final say in determining how many parts per billion count as “pollution” for the enforcement of the laws. In the Esquivel-Quintana case, the Board of Immigration Appeals usually holds the final say for deportation and decided that the federal definition of “aggravated sexual abuse of a minor” was vague and broad enough to cover the statutory rape conviction, but Fisher argued before the Court that such criminal statutes shouldn’t be left up to an immigration board.
The unanimous decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, overturned the decision to deport Esquivel-Quintana without having to reconsider the precedent of Chevron Deference in any capacity. In sum, Thomas writes that the federal statute as written intends to include only statutory rape cases involving a participant under age 16.