By: Philliip Torrey
The “conviction” definition is one of the most misunderstood and odious provisions in our country’s immigration statute. The “conviction” term is a misnomer because it includes criminal dispositions that are often not considered convictions at all. Despite its perplexing definition, “convictions” are frequently used as markers for removal. For example, in FY2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) apprehended 143,470 individuals within the interior of the United States and ninety-two percent of those individuals had a criminal conviction, arrest, or an outstanding removal order. In FY2016, ICE’s apprehension totals likewise showed that ninety-two percent of individuals arrested by ICE had a criminal conviction. The purpose of this short article is to explain immigration law’s enigmatic “conviction” definition, its nefarious history, and current efforts to challenge the definition’s interpretation. In so doing, the article draws on my prior scholarship, which — along with a seminal article by immigration scholar Jason Cade — became the blueprint for challenging the “conviction” definition in federal court.
In 1996, the “conviction” definition was codified in our country’s primary immigration statute known as the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”). The INA’s “conviction” definition includes two distinct prongs. If either prong is satisfied, then the state criminal disposition at issue is rendered a conviction for immigration purposes regardless of how the state categorizes the disposition. The definition’s first prong is straightforward. It simply requires a final judgment of guilt entered by a court. The second prong, however, turns any guilty plea, no contest plea, or admission to “sufficient facts to warrant a guilty finding” plea into a conviction for immigration as long as some punishment, penalty or restraint on liberty is imposed — even if that plea is held in abeyance or later vacated. The second prong, as currently interpreted, morphs many deferred adjudications and expungements into convictions for immigration purposes even though most states would not consider dispositions from those types of ameliorative programs convictions for state law purposes.
Sweeping ameliorative programs into the “conviction” definition was no mistake. The definition was codified in the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (“IIRAIRA”), which was passed during an election year when Congress was eager to demonstrate that it was tough on crime and determined to secure our borders — both of which were considered winning campaign slogans. Although IIRAIRA has a dearth of legislative history, the following quote from a conference report is illustrative:
[A]liens who have clearly been guilty of criminal behavior and whom Congress intended to be considered “convicted” have escaped the immigration consequences normally attendant upon a conviction. . . . [E]ven in cases where adjudication is “deferred,” the original finding or confession of guilt is sufficient to establish a “conviction” for purposes of the immigration laws.
But in the age of the plea deal where “innocence is irrelevant” and mass incarceration and racial discrimination have become synonymous with criminal justice, the assumption that individuals who pursue an ameliorative program are “clearly . . . guilty of criminal behavior” is baseless at best and overtly vindictive at worst.
In fact, all states offer ameliorative programs that were designed to respond to rising incarceration rates and the devastating effects of the War on Drugs on communities of color. For example, Missouri has a suspended sentencing program that does not result in a conviction for state law purposes and therefore allows certain criminal offenders the opportunity to avoid the societal disenfranchisement that typically comes with a criminal conviction. Describing that ameliorative program, the Supreme Court of Missouri noted that “[t]he obvious legislative purpose of [the program] is to allow a defendant to avoid the stigma of a lifetime conviction and the punitive collateral consequences that follow.” The Court further recognized that the deferral program was an important “tool” for criminal sentencing courts to allow certain offenders “a chance to clear their records by demonstrating their value to society through compliance with conditions of probation under the guidance of the court.” When the INA’s “conviction” definition attaches immigrations consequences such as detention and deportation to these ameliorative programs, it frustrates the state’s desire to facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals in those programs.
A California expungement law is now at the center of litigation because of the inherent federalism tension created by immigration law’s “conviction” definition. The California expungement statute allows a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea when subsequently imposed conditions of probation are met. A final plea of not guilty is then entered by the court, which effectively vacates the prior guilty plea. The purpose of the law is to “help further reduce recidivism, building upon statewide efforts to assist those who have served their time and proven their willingness to be productive, contributing, law-abiding members of society.” California’s expungement law is a legitimate exercise of its reserved powers to regulate the health and safety of its residents because it designed to encourage “rehabilitated individuals to obtain a decent paying job, qualify for secure and safe housing, or pursue their educational goals.” The purpose of that law is thus undermined when individuals with expunged convictions are detained and deported by the immigration enforcement system.
The obvious federalism tension between the INA’s “conviction” definition and California’s expungement law is at issue in a lawsuit currently pending before an en banc Ninth Circuit. In that case, I recently co-counseled an amicus brief on behalf of immigration professors arguing that a California expungement should not be categorized as a conviction for immigration purposes. The brief argued that the expungement law was a valid exercise of a state’s reserved police powers and that the INA’s “conviction” definition must be interpreted to avoid purposefully obstructing a state’s ability to exercise that power. In other words, the federalism principles upon which our government is founded do not grant Congress the unfettered authority to undermine a state law duly enacted pursuant to a state’s constitutional authority.
At a time when the current Administration invokes the “rule of law” to justify the reprehensible use of detention and deportation to tear families apart, it is more important than ever to confront nefarious parts of our immigration law that have gone overlooked for decades. The “conviction” definition is one such feature of our immigration law that advocates should continue to challenge.
 See H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 828, 104th Cong. (1996), reprinted in 142 Cong. Rec. H10899 (daily ed. Sept. 24, 1996).
 Yale v. City of Independence, 846 S.W.2d 193,195 (1993).
 A.B. 1115, Comm. on Pub. Safety, 2017-18 Sess., at 2 (Cal. 2017).
 A.B. 1115, Third Reading Bill Analysis, 2017-18 Sess., at 5 (Cal. 2017).