by Sejal Zota, Staff Attorney, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild
Moones Mellouli is a native of Tunisia, but a lawful permanent resident of the United States, engaged to marry a U.S. citizen. The federal government is trying to deport Mellouli for his Kansas conviction for possessing a sock – yes a sock! – deemed drug paraphernalia when used to conceal or store drugs. ACS thrives on its law-student participation, so let’s build a hypothetical with socks to illustrate this important Supreme Court argument. When a DOJ attorney steps to the podium at the Court on Jan. 14 to defend this deportation order, imagine for a moment his credibility if he walked up wearing two different colored socks; say a pink argyle and a green striped one.
But these socks would likely be hidden by the podium -- so imagine, instead, that he walked in on his hands to parade his mismatched stockings before the justices. Far-fetched perhaps, but the eyebrows this would raise should match the justices’ reaction to the government’s mismatched administrative interpretations of the single statute at issue here, Section 1227(a)(2)(B)(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
First things first, this statute itself in no way calls for Mellouli’s deportation. It specifically calls for the removal of “any alien who at any time after admission has been convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation of a State . . . relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of Title 21).” But the record of Mellouli’s conviction does not disclose anything about the drug he had socked away. Kansas law bans plenty of substances -- a list far broader than those defined in section 802 of title 21. For example, salvia is on the Kansas list, a type of mint plant, which Miley Cyrus (another adventurous dresser) recently made news smoking.
The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) is the administrative agency responsible for interpretation of this and other immigration statutes. Courts typically give administrative agencies a fair amount of leeway to interpret statutes. This principle is known as Chevron deference. But this deference is not free for the taking. Federal courts don’t give it when the agency interpretation bears little relation to the statute, and they throw deference completely to the side when the agency starts offering inconsistent interpretations of a single statute. The government is asking for Chevron deference in this case, but suffers from both of these problems.
The plain language of the federal statute requires the state paraphernalia conviction be directly and necessarily tied to a controlled substance under federal law. Keeping paraphernalia used with salvia and other Kansas-forbidden drugs may be criminal in Kansas, but these drugs are not on the federal list of controlled substances. There is no necessary federal tie Mellouli’s Kansas crime, and no basis for interpreting the statute otherwise.