The Immigration Penalties of Criminal Convictions: Resurrecting Categorical Analysis in Immigration Law

December
2011
Alina Das

For over a century, noncitizens in the United States have faced adverse immigration
consequences if convicted of certain types of offenses in criminal court. Many criminal
convictions carry severe immigration penalties, including deportation, detention,
and the denial of statuses like asylum and U.S. citizenship. The Supreme
Court recently recognized that these penalties are so intimately tied to criminal
court adjudications that criminal defense attorneys have a duty to advise noncitizen
defendants of the immigration consequences of a conviction before the entry of a
guilty plea in criminal court. Yet there is little clarity about how to determine
whether a particular conviction triggers an immigration penalty. Historically, courts
and immigration officials have applied a categorical analysis to assess the immigration
consequences of a criminal conviction. Under a categorical analysis, a court or
immigration official determines the penalties based on an examination of the statutory
definition of the offense, not the factual circumstances of the crime. However,
several recent Supreme Court, federal court, and agency decisions have ignored this
longstanding analysis and have instead examined these issues through the lens of
Taylor v. United States, a criminal sentencing case that adopts a categorical analysis
in a different context. Distinguishing Taylor and its criminal sentencing rationales,
these decisions have invented a new approach to assessing past criminal
convictions in the immigration context. That approach now permits a circumstance-specific inquiry into facts beyond the criminal court’s findings in some immigration
cases. Under these recent decisions, the immigration consequences of a criminal
conviction no longer turn on the criminal court adjudication alone, but may also be
determined by facts that were not proven or pleaded in the criminal court proceeding.
This Article argues that this shift in approach is based on a fundamental
misunderstanding of the origins of categorical analysis in immigration law and its
independent rationales, including its promotion of notice and an opportunity to be
heard, uniformity, predictability, efficiency, and judicial review in the administrative
agency context. This Article further argues that, because of this flaw in the
current debate, courts have failed to consider the negative impact of the erosion of
categorical analysis on the functioning of the current immigration and criminal justice
systems. The rationales for categorical analysis apply with even greater force
today than they did when categorical analysis was first articulated nearly a century
ago. Rather than erode categorical analysis, courts and the agency should require
its robust application in light of its longstanding rationales and modern-day
implications.

This article appears in the December 2011 Issue: Volume 86, Number 6