Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Three Most Significant Decisions on Immigration

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. A well-known advocate of equality and women’s rights, Justice Ginsburg was also a champion of progressive rights in general and leaves behind a strong legacy of decisions on immigration.

Although her impact cannot be quantified, below is a list of three of the most significant decisions that Justice Ginsburg ruled on:

  1. Helped cut off the Trump administration’s efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
    Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., No. 18-587 (U.S. Jun. 18, 2020)
    The 5-4 decision was written by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justice Ginsburg. The Trump administration attempted to end DACA, an Obama-era program that protects immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision held that the Trump administration failed to comply with the procedural requirement that it provide an adequate reason to justify ending the program. Although this decision did not rule on the merits of the program and the attempt to end it, it effectively put a roadblock to the administration’s efforts and saved the program for at least the foreseeable future.
  2. Defended the constitutional limitation on prolonged immigration detention.
    Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001)
    The Supreme Court held that immigrant with final removal orders cannot be forced to stay in detention for an unlimited period of time, even if the government is not able to physically deport the individual from the United States. Generally, immigration law requires that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deport individuals within 90 days after a final removal order but DHS has been known to leave individuals waiting in detention for months past this point. The reasons for this prolonged detention vary from being because the individual is challenging the removal order in the courts or because DHS or foreign governments are delayed in getting the necessary travel documents or flight arrangements. In the underlying case, both individuals had been detained for an extended period because DHS could not locate a country amenable to receive the deportable individuals. The issue before the Court was whether the government was authorized to detain a removable individual indefinitely beyond the 90-day removal period or only for a period reasonably necessary to secure their removal. The Supreme Court held that the government was not automatically authorized to detain individuals indefinitely and that the law contained an implicit “reasonable time” limitation of six months.
  3. Defended against the automatic deportation of certain individuals convicted of crimes.
    INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289 (2001)
    Prior to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), individuals convicted of certain crimes which made them deportable could still apply for a form of relief under which the government could waive their deportation. Although the previously mentioned Acts eliminated this form of relief, the underlying case came up when the individual was placed into deportation proceedings after 1996 based on a conviction to which the individual pleaded guilty to prior to the new laws. Thus, the question presented was whether the individual could be subject to automatic deportation and not allowed the opportunity to apply for the form of relief which was available when the individual pleaded guilty. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided against the automatic deportation of those convicted of crimes before new stringent legal provisions took effect in 1996. Although not a common set of circumstances, the preservation of this form of relief for those with certain convictions prior to 1996 is extremely significant as it is often the only defense against deportation that they have.

Justice Ginsburg’s presence and unrelenting defense of immigrants’ rights will be greatly missed on the Supreme Court, but her legacy will live on for decades in the decisions she influenced.

Marissa Young
Associate Attorney
David Swaim & Associates