Since launching his presidential campaign in 2015, the nation has been inundated with inflammatory, anti-immigrant rhetoric catalyzed by President Trump. Publically, Trump has called undocumented Mexican immigrants people with “lots of problems,” “drugs” and “rapists,” despite no data existing linking illegal immigration and crime. During meetings with other lawmakers, Trump has wondered why people from “sh-thole countries” like Haiti, El Salvador and African countries come to the United States. Privately, Trump has often talked about fortifying the border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators and soldiers shooting migrants in the legs to slow them down. These blatantly xenophobic statements, backed by the stories of children ripped away from their parents and images of children in cages, have instilled fear in many people of color in this country.
The Supreme Court, the supposed bulwark against an overreaching president, has done little to combat Trump’s anti-immigration policies. The Court notably greenlit his travel ban for certain majority-Muslim countries, cleared the way for Trump to construct the border wall along the southwestern border and allowed a rule that made it more difficult for low-income immigrants to come to or remain in the United States. This pattern reemerged last Thursday, when the Supreme Court ruled against an immigrant named Andre Barton in a 5-4 decision that split along ideological lines. Notably, the rhetoric between the majority opinion, penned by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, differed greatly from the language utilized by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent. Kavanaugh’s language may reveal the conservative majority’s anti-immigrant attitudes reminiscent of Trump’s own sentiments.
This decision, unlike past immigration cases, does not collide with an ongoing culture war. It’s just a tragedy designed to make every immigrant feel a little less safe. Andre Barton, a native and citizen of Jamaica, has been living in the United States since he was around 10 years old. Barton and his mother entered legally, and he has not returned to Jamaica in 25 years. In 1996, when Barton was a teenager and had only a few months before he had been in the country for seven years, Barton was charged and convicted of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm. His friend shot a gun at his ex-girlfriend’s house while Barton was present, though Barton testified he was unaware that his friend had a gun.
Afterward, Barton led a law-abiding life until the mid-2000s, when he developed a drug problem and was convicted on possession charges. After attending two drug rehabilitation programs, Barton went on to graduate from college, run an automobile repair shop, and become a father to four young children. He was never in trouble with the law again.
That is, until the Trump administration got his hands on him. Nearly 10 years after his last arrest, Barton was detained and placed in removal proceedings. Since Barton had been lawfully admitted, the Government could not charge him with any grounds of inadmissibility, but rather his prior firearm and drug convictions. The conservative majority ruled that under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Barton was ineligible to have his deportation canceled because of his past crimes. This opinion ignores the glaringly obvious point that whatever debt Barton owed to society, he had already paid that price over a decade ago.
Underlying this seemingly dry statutory case, the language of Barton v. Barr reflects the political battle of competing views regarding the value and protections that should be afforded to noncitizens. The majority anchors its nonsensical ruling on the 1996 immigration law that “tightly cabins eligibility for cancellation of removal.” Kavanaugh justifies the grounds of inadmissibility and deportability on a “traditional recidivist sentencing statute” that permits consideration of past criminal offenses. This narrow focus on crime is underscored by Kavanaugh’s introduction to his opinion — within the first four sentences, Kavanaugh offers details about Barton’s criminal history that suggest his view that he is unworthy of staying in the country he’s lived his entire life in. It may suggest Justice Kavanaugh personally holds anti-immigrant biases. By contrast, Sotomayor writes in great detail about Barton’s educational achievements, the length of time he’s stayed in the United States, and his strong family ties to this country.
In essence, the conservative majority has decided that people in their 40s can be deported for crimes committed in their teens, even if those crimes would not have warranted their deportation at the time they were committed. The Supreme Court, despite Chief Justice John Roberts’ repeated sentiments that politics has no influence on the Court whatsoever, has once again propped up yet another one of Trump’s anti-immigrant rules. Importantly, Kavanaugh’s rhetoric that repeatedly emphasizes Barton’s past crimes over the man he is today is reminiscent of Trump’s own rhetoric linking immigrants to crime. Time and time again, the Supreme Court kowtows to the Trump Administration’s relentless anti-immigrant agenda, and the conservative majority’s rhetoric reveals that their personal sentiments may be more political than let on.
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