Center for New Americans, Partners Cement SCOTUS Victory and Secure Fair Enforcement Policy for Immigrants Nationwide

December 7, 2015

Following a remarkable second round of litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court, the immigration case of Moones Mellouli came to a definitive end last week when an immigration court dismissed with prejudice all deportation proceedings against him after federal authorities promised the Supreme Court that they would never again seek to deport him, or any other immigrant, on the basis of drug convictions that have no proven connection to substances controlled under federal law.

Mellouli was represented by a team of lawyers and law students from the University of Minnesota Law School’s Center for New Americans, the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm, and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

On June 1, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Mellouli v. Holder, handing Mellouli what he and his legal team assumed was a final victory. The court ruled 7-2 that a legal permanent resident such as Mr. Mellouli may not be deported under immigration laws for a drug conviction unless the conviction is necessarily tied to a specific drug controlled by federal statute. Mellouli, a mathematician engaged to a U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty in 2010 to possessing drug paraphernalia—namely, his own sock. Federal immigration officials then deported Mellouli to Tunisia without showing that his conviction for possessing the sock related to any drug controlled by federal law. The Supreme Court declared his deportation unlawful for this reason and cleared the way for him to return to his fiancée in the United States.

“We all assumed Moones would be coming home soon because the Supreme Court spoke so clearly,” said Julia Decker, a 2014 graduate of the Law School who worked on the case both as a law student and, most recently, in her new position as a teaching fellow with the Center for New Americans.

But the homecoming was delayed. In July, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decision approving Mellouli’s deportation had been reversed by the Supreme Court, issued a surprising new judgment saying federal authorities might still justify Mellouli’s deportation with facts not proven by his 2010 paraphernalia conviction. The Eighth Circuit sent the case back to a lower immigration court for further deportation proceedings.

“Our team saw no room in the Supreme Court’s opinion for this,” said Aaron Van Oort, a partner with Faegre Baker Daniels. “But because the Eighth Circuit disagreed, it became clear that we would have to return to the Supreme Court to vindicate our client’s right to reclaim his status and his life in America.”

In August, despite opposition from government lawyers, Mellouli’s team won an order from the Supreme Court staying any further deportation proceedings while they prepared a new appeal for the justices to consider. According to Van Oort, the Supreme Court’s decision to grant a stay was an encouraging affirmation of the strength of Mellouli’s position that the Supreme Court’s decision marked the definitive end of his case, not a new beginning on remand.

The government appeared to see it that way, too. In October, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the federal government’s top lawyer before the Supreme Court, filed a public statement with the justices conceding that the new Eighth Circuit decision could not provide a valid basis for Mellouli’s deportation or the deportation of any other immigrant in his position. Based on this concession and the government’s agreement to seek a dismissal with prejudice of all deportation proceedings against Mellouli, the Supreme Court lifted its stay. The parties then filed a joint motion to dismiss with prejudice with the Board of Immigration Appeals, which granted the motion on November 13.

Kate Evans, a teaching fellow with the Center for New Americans, said the extra round of litigation cements Mellouli’s Supreme Court win and effectively extends its protections. “The government’s promise that it will never seek to deport immigrants by looking behind some of the most minor drug convictions in search of facts that were never proven in criminal court is an important policy shift. It both clarifies and secures the benefit of our client’s victory for immigrants nationwide.”

Evans said Mellouli was excited, again, to learn that his case was over. “He’s extremely happy his case made a difference for others, and overjoyed that he can finally prepare to return home to his life in the United States.”

Moones Mellouli
Moones Mellouli

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