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May 19, 11:03 AM EDT

High court rules against NY man denied re-entry to US



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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court is making it easier for the government to deport or otherwise remove people who are not U.S. citizens if they are convicted of seemingly minor state crimes.

The justices ruled 5-3 Thursday that a man who spent 23 years living in New York as a lawful permanent resident can be barred from re-entering the country because of a 1999 conviction for attempted arson.

George Luna Torres had served one day in prison and five years of probation after pleading guilty in state court, but otherwise had a clean record since his parents brought him into the country from the Dominican Republic in 1983.

But the government argued that the state law conviction was equivalent to an aggravated felony for purposes of immigration law.

Under immigration law, a lawful permanent resident can be deported or denied re-entry to the United States after being convicted of an aggravated felony. Those offenses include certain federal crimes as well as state offenses that share the same elements.

Luna argued that the federal crime of arson is different from the state version because it must involve interstate commerce.

Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said that is simply a technical difference needed to give Congress authority over arson crimes and not a meaningful distinction. She said Luna's argument would also exclude more serious state crimes, such as kidnapping, from affecting immigration status simply because a kidnapper failed to cross state lines.

"The national, local or foreign character of a crime has no bearing on whether it is grave enough to warrant an alien's automatic removal," Kagan said.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority was ignoring a strict textual reading of the federal law, which includes interstate commerce as part of the crime.

"An element is an element, and I would not so lightly strip a federal statute of one," Sotomayor said.

She was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.

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