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Meaning of “Conviction” in Immigration Law

Values: Everyone deserves to be treated and equally under the law.

In a fair system of justice everyone has the right to fair day in court, regardless of immigration status or any other factor.

Problem: Immigrants, including longterm legal residents, may be punished with detention and deportation for dispositions not considered convictions under criminal law

The definition of a conviction under immigration law differs from its criminal-law definition. For immigration purposes a conviction exists when there has been either a formal judgment of guilt entered by the court, a plea of guilt or no contest, or an admission to the offense, and the court ordered some form of punishment, penalty, or restraint on the individual’s liberty; this need not include actual jail time and may even be limited to a fine.

  • The definition of “conviction” in US immigration law is over-broad.

    Under a 1996 law, immigration courts define “conviction” broadly to include some dispositions not considered a “conviction” by the criminal court, such as a suspended sentence or a conviction that’s vacated upon completion of rehabilitation programs, such as a drug treatment program.

  • An immigrant need not be found guilty to be deported.

    Also as a result of the 1996 changes, an immigrant defendant may be deported on the basis of an offense for which they were not found guilty, or where the case was dismissed and left no state criminal record.

  • This ultimately results in confusion for immigrants and their counsel.

    Many criminal defense attorneys and criminal judges tell defendants that certain dispositions will not result in a conviction for immigration purposes, not understanding that the criminal justice definition is different from the immigration one. Having taken legal advice purporting to protect them from deportation, many immigrants are deported anyway.

  • The immigration system has its own definition of “jail time.”

    Immigration law defines a term of imprisonment as any period of jail time ordered by a court, regardless of whether that jail sentence was suspended and involved no actual jail time. Lawful permanent residents, including refugees and asylees, can be deported for certain offenses only if the immigration law’s definition of term of imprisonment is satisfied, and suspended sentences meet this definition, even if the person didn’t spend a day in jail.

Solution: Amend the definition of “conviction” and “sentence” under immigration law

Congress should redefine these terms so that they reflects common sense, proportionality, and the American system of justice.

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