Case: INS v. St. Cyr

3:99-cv-00260 | U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut

Filed Date: April 27, 1999

Closed Date: July 25, 2001

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Case Summary

This case was prompted by the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996 (“IIRIRA”) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), which contained comprehensive amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”). For decades, the INA provided for a discretionary waiver of deportation to allow amelioration of the rigid application of the deportability provisions in the case of legal permanent residents who committed deportable crim…

This case was prompted by the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996 (“IIRIRA”) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), which contained comprehensive amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”). For decades, the INA provided for a discretionary waiver of deportation to allow amelioration of the rigid application of the deportability provisions in the case of legal permanent residents who committed deportable criminal offenses. The eligibility waiver criteria were limited to legal permanent residents who had maintained an uninterrupted lawful domicile in the United States for seven years. In enacting the AEDPA and the IIRIRA in 1996, Congress repealed INA § 212(c) in its entirety and replaced it with another form of relief entitled “cancellation of removal” found in AEDPA § 440 and IIRIRA § 304. Cancellation of removal relief permitted waiver of deportation for certain classes of aliens; however, it was categorically not available to an alien convicted of a crime that qualified as an “aggravated felony” under the statutes.

The plaintiff in this case became a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 1986 after immigrating to the United States from Haiti. Ten years later, on March 8, 1996, the plaintiff pled guilty in state court to a charge of selling a controlled substance in violation of Connecticut law. This conviction made him deportable. Under the law applicable at the time of his conviction, the plaintiff would have been eligible for a waiver of deportation at the discretion of the Attorney General. However, removal proceedings against the plaintiff were not commenced until April 10, 1997, after the IIRIRA became effective. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”) instituted removal proceedings against the plaintiff on the grounds that his criminal conviction rendered him deportable pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii) (aggravated felony). At his removal hearing, an Immigration Judge denied the plaintiff’s application for a discretionary waiver of deportation under former provision INA § 212(c). The plaintiff appealed his removal order to the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”), and the BIA dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal on November 10, 1998.

On April 27, 1999, the plaintiff filed a habeas corpus petition against the INS in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. In his petition, the plaintiff argued that AEDPA § 440(d) and IIRIRA § 304 should not be applied retrospectively to bar his eligibility for § 212(c) relief because both his criminal conduct and his conviction occurred prior to the statutes’ enactment. In contrast, the INS argued the 1996 amendments to the INA divested the district court of jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff’s habeas petition. On the merits, the INS argued that AEDPA § 440(d) was applicable to the plaintiff’s case because the removal proceedings had been commenced against the plaintiff after the effective date of the AEDPA. Specifically, the INS argued that applying § 440(d) to aliens ordered deportable because of criminal convictions that were entered prior to the AEDPA’s effective date was not an unjustified retrospective application of § 440(d). 

On August 23, 1999, Judge H. Nevas held that the district court had jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff’s habeas petition because the 1996 amendments to the INA did not explicitly divest a district court of its habeas jurisdiction over final removal orders under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. 64 F. Supp. 2d 47. The district court concluded that the scope of its review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 included the plaintiff’s statutory claim that the BIA had misapplied the immigration laws. In addressing the merits of the plaintiff’s habeas petition, the district court held that AEDPA § 440(d) was inapplicable to an alien placed in removal proceedings after the AEDPA’s enactment if the relevant convictions, criminal proceedings, or underlying criminal conduct occurred prior to the AEDPA’s enactment. The district court reasoned that Congress did not intend AEDPA § 440(d) to be applied retroactively to such pre-enactment events because it would unfairly attach new legal consequences to pre-AEDPA criminal conduct. Thus, the district court concluded that the plaintiff’s removal proceedings should be governed by the laws that were in effect at the time the plaintiff committed his crime. Accordingly, the district court granted the plaintiff’s habeas corpus petition.

On October 22, 1999, the INS appealed the district court’s decision to the Second Circuit. The appeals panel was composed of Judges James Lowell Oakes, John M. Walker Jr., and Damon J. Keith. The Second Circuit initially granted a motion to consolidate this appeal (99-2614) with two other appeals (99-2618 and 99-2619), but it then vacated the order consolidating the cases on January 24, 2000. The three-judge panel of the Second Circuit heard oral arguments on March 30, 2000. On September 1, 2000, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment insofar as it held that the bar to discretionary relief from removal did not apply to guilty and nolo contendere pleas entered before the IIRIRA’s enactment. 229 F.3d 406.

On November 13, 2000, the INS filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, and on January 12, 2001, the Supreme Court granted the petition for a writ of certiorari. On March 28, 2001, an amici curiae brief was filed in support of the respondent by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Association of Federal Defenders, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and many others. The Supreme Court heard oral argument in this case on April 24, 2001.

On June 25, 2001, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Second Circuit in a 5-4 opinion. 533 U.S. 289. The Supreme Court reviewed two questions: the first question was a procedural one, concerning the effect of those amendments on the availability of habeas corpus jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. The second question was a substantive one, concerning the impact of the 1996 amendments on conduct that occurred before their enactment and on the availability of discretionary relief from deportation. With regard to the first question, the Supreme Court held that federal district courts had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 to decide the legal issue raised by the plaintiff’s habeas petition. The Supreme Court found that a construction of the 1996 amendments that would entirely preclude review of a pure question of law by any court would give rise to substantial constitutional questions. Moreover, to conclude that the writ was no longer available in this context would represent a departure from historical practice in immigration law. The writ of habeas corpus had always been available to review the legality of Executive detention. Regarding the second question, the Supreme Court found nothing in the IIRIRA unmistakably indicating that Congress considered the question of whether to apply its repeal of § 212(c) retroactively to such aliens. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that § 212(c) relief remained available for aliens, like the plaintiff here, whose convictions were obtained through plea agreements and who, notwithstanding those convictions, would have been eligible for § 212(c) relief at the time of their plea under the law then in effect. 

Justice Scalia wrote the dissent in this case, which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas joined. Justice O’Connor joined Justice Scalia’s dissent in part. In his dissent, Justice Scalia argued that Congress did not need to provide a clear statement that it intended to remove habeas jurisdiction for federal district courts. The plain language of the AEDPA and the IIRIRA unambiguously repealed the application of 28 U.S.C. § 2241, and all other provisions for judicial review, to deportation challenges brought by certain kinds of criminal aliens, thereby stripping the federal district courts of jurisdiction to entertain habeas corpus petitions. Justice Scalia also argued that the majority’s decision would result in criminal aliens being afforded more expansive appellate rights than noncriminal aliens, which he felt was an absurd result. In contrast, Justice O’Connor found that the Suspension Clause guaranteed some minimum extent of habeas review; however, the right asserted by the plaintiff in this case fell outside the scope of that review because the Suspension Clause guaranteed the common-law right of habeas corpus, as it was understood when the Constitution was ratified, and that did not include the right to obtain discretionary release.

On the same day the Supreme Court issued its decision, it also issued its decision in Calcano-Martinez v. INS. In that case, the court ruled that federal appellate courts lacked jurisdiction to hear petitions for direct review of final removal orders that were given under similar factual circumstances. Habeas was the proper remedy.

Summary Authors

Tallulah Wick (3/31/2024)

Related Cases

Calcano-Martinez v. INS, Southern District of New York (1998)

Documents in the Clearinghouse


Last updated March 14, 2024, 3 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Connecticut

Case Type(s):

Immigration and/or the Border

Key Dates

Filing Date: April 27, 1999

Closing Date: July 25, 2001

Case Ongoing: No


Plaintiff Description:

A permanent legal resident alien of the United States who had been ordered to be deported because of his prior criminal conviction.

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

ACLU National (all projects)

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought


Immigration and Naturalization Service (Washington, D.C., - United States (national) -), Federal

Defendant Type(s):


Case Details

Causes of Action:

Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. §§ 1101 et seq.

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA)

Habeas Corpus, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241-2253; 2254; 2255

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process

Due Process: Procedural Due Process

Special Case Type(s):


Available Documents:

Any published opinion

U.S. Supreme Court merits opinion


Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Habeas relief

Source of Relief:




Disciplinary procedures


Constitutional rights

Criminal prosecution

Cuban/Haitian entrant

Deportation - judicial review

Deportation - procedure