Justice Department aims to block an order framed as an anti-COVID measure that targets undocumented immigrants.
In a court ruling with potentially broad implications for United States immigration cases, a federal judge in Nevada has found a criminal law that dates to 1929 and makes it a felony for a person who has been deported from the US to return to the country is unconstitutional.
US District Judge Miranda Du in Reno, in an order issued on Wednesday, found the law widely known as Section 1326 is based on “racist, nativist roots” and discriminates against Mexican and Latino people in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.
“Anybody who works in federal courts knows the statute,” Franny Forsman, retired longtime chief of the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Nevada, said on Thursday. “There really are a large number of cases that have been brought over the years under that section. They’re mostly public defender cases.”
Section 1326 of the Immigration and Nationality Act makes it a crime for a person to enter the US if they have been denied admission, deported or removed.
It was enacted in 1952 using language from the Undesirable Aliens Act passed by Congress in 1929. Penalties were stiffened five times between 1988 and 1996 to increase its deterrent value.
Forsman said she expected the government will appeal to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
But Julian Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, tweeted that he doubted the Justice Department would want to defend a law with “an incredibly racist history”.
Acting US Attorney Christopher Chiou and an aide did not immediately respond to messages about the ruling.
Forsman called Du’s order groundbreaking for its thoroughness. Du, a Vietnamese immigrant, was nominated to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama and sworn in in 2012.
“I think it will have implications because it’s going to be difficult to get around her reasoning,” Forsman said of the court order.
“It’s a little hard to get around a statute that was called the ‘Wetback Act’ by the people enacting it,” she said, referring to a derogatory term sometimes used to disparage Mexican migrants, and Hispanics more generally.
Du said she considered written and oral arguments and expert testimony about the legislative history of the law from professors Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien of San Diego State University and Kelly Lytle Hernandez of the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Importantly, the government does not dispute that Section 1326 bears more heavily on Mexican and Latinx individuals,” the judge said in her 43-page order dismissing the June 2020 criminal indictment of Gustavo Carrillo-Lopez.
Carrillo-Lopez was arrested in Nevada in 2019 after having been deported in 1999 and again in 2012, according to prosecutors.
A Nevada court just ruled Sec. 1326 of the Immigration and Nationality Act—which makes unauthorized reentry at the border a felony—unconstitutional.
Like Sec. 1325, this law has an incredibly racist history. I doubt the Biden DOJ will want to defend it in the appellate court. pic.twitter.com/lFOhybJ6A5
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) August 18, 2021
The judge said she saw no publicly available data about the national origin of people prosecuted under Section 1326, but cited US Border Patrol statistics showing that more than 97 percent of people apprehended at the border in 2000 were of Mexican descent, 86 percent in 2005, and 87 percent in 2010.
“The government argues that the stated impact is ‘a product of geography, not discrimination,’ and that the statistics are rather a feature of Mexico’s proximity to the United States, the history of Mexican employment patterns and the socio-political and economic factors that drive migration,” Du wrote.
“The court is not persuaded.”