In 2010, the Supreme Court decided Padilla v. Kentucky. Padilla, a long-time legal permanent resident of the United States and a Vietnam veteran, was caught with drugs in Kentucky. His lawyer advised him to take a plea deal and told him not to worry about the immigration consequences of the conviction because “he’s been in the country for so long.” Lo and behold, the conviction triggered immigration consequences and Padilla was subject to mandatory deportation.

In a surprising departure from its usual approach to the ineffective assistance of counsel doctrine, the Court found that the defense attorney provided advice that fell beneath the minimum professional requirements and also prejudiced the client, thus failing the test from Strickland v. Washington. Justice Stevens’ opinion explains that immigration consequences of criminal conviction (“collateral” consequences) are often much more serious than the punishment meted out by the criminal justice system. In his words:

We have long recognized that deportation is a particularly severe “penalty”; but it is not, in a strict sense, a criminal sanction. Although removal proceedings are civil in nature. . . deportation is nevertheless intimately related to the criminal process. Our law has enmeshed criminal convictions and the penalty of deportation for nearly a century. . . And, importantly, recent changes in our immigration law have made removal nearly an automatic result for a broad class of noncitizen offenders. Thus, we find it “most difficult” to divorce the penalty from the conviction in the deportation context. . . . Moreover, we are quite confident that noncitizen defendants facing a risk of deportation for a particular offense find it even more difficult.  

Deportation as a consequence of a criminal conviction is, because of its close connection to the criminal process, uniquely difficult to classify as either a direct or a collateral consequence. The collateral versus direct distinction is thus ill-suited to evaluating a Strickland claim concerning the specific risk of deportation. We conclude that advice regarding deportation is not categorically removed from the ambit of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Strickland applies to Padilla’s claim.

All of which is true: deportation is, indeed, a life-altering penalty, and clients must absolutely take it into account when crafting their trial strategy. But where does this leave defense attorneys, who have had to learn an entire new field of law, rife with hypertechnical distinctions, arcane definitions, and jurisdictional messiness?

For the uninitiated, I’ll just say that the terms used by the INA and other immigration legislation do not mean what defense attorneys would be justified in thinking they mean. A “conviction” under the INA is not necessarily a conviction under state law. An “aggravated felony” under the INA need not be aggravated, nor a felony. “Drug crimes”, “domestic violence”, “firearm”, mean very different things in the immigration context than they do under state law. And don’t even get me started on crimes of moral turpitude, the meaning of which is so vague and fluid that immigration courts still refer to a legal dictionary from 1914. Unconvinced? How about a Jamaican citizen and legal permanent US resident busted for having 1.3 oz of marijuana facing deportation and having to take his case all the way to the Supreme Court to clarify whether this counts as an “aggravated felony”? Nor weird enough for you? Then why should it take a certiorary to the Supreme Court to save from deportation a mathematics professor–Green Card holder from Tunisia–caught with a sock containing four orange pills, who got nailed under Kansas law not for the pills, but for possession of the sock?

The point I’m trying to make is not that U.S. immigration law is nuts (that should be obvious), but rather that, in 2010, expecting garden variety defense attorneys to master all this, complete with all the contradictions and differences, was a tall order. Many people in the civil rights community (me included) hailed Padilla for finally drawing attention to the horror that collateral consequences can bring onto a person’s life. But what if Padilla completely backfired, and what we’ve created is an invitation to confusion at best and malpractice at worst?

Consider this: None of the criminal procedure bail-to-jail courses I am familiar with, including mine (this is going to change as of the next time I teach it), includes a crimmigration unit. Not all law schools even offer a crimmigration class, and of course if they do it’s not mandatory. The bar doesn’t test on immigration and certainly not on crimmigration. I did an informal poll among my former students who practice as defense attorneys. Those who work at public defender offices are lucky in that good, conscientious outfits have prioritized hiring immigration experts (this does not dispense with the Padilla requirement, because presumably the ethical responsibility is still the public defender’s, but at least it offers the clients correct advice.) Those who work as private attorneys, or in smaller outfits such as alternate public defender offices in rural places, are left completely in the lurch. They rely on charts and lists such as this one, or they’ll refer the clients to immigration attorneys, but that means that people who are already in dire financial straits incur even more costs. At least one person admitted to me that they pass on cases with immigration consequences because they fear ethical violations and don’t want to do a bad job, and while this reluctance is understandable, one wonders where that leaves clients with immigration issues (who are already among the weakest, most disenfranchised folks in the system) collectively. More commonly (and also disturbing)–my former students admitted their immense discomfort when counseling people not to take good deals, or to go to trial with a very flimsy chance of success, or to take ridiculous deals that are immigration workarounds. They were (understandably) confused about whether advising their client about the least of all evils–taking a suboptimal criminal justice strategy to save them immigrationwise–was ethically clean, even when realistically sound. They also expressed frustration when dealing with ill-informed (at best) or callous (at worst) prosecutors who chide them for asking for something “special” or “preferable” for a client in risk of deportation.

In other words: This is not good.

I have a few thoughts about this. The first is that a solid empirical study of Padilla‘s impact on criminal practice is absolutely essential. This would require a survey of a large group of defense attorneys about how Padilla altered their criminal practice, as well as in-depth interviews with examples. This stuff will have to be triangulated with what we know about criminal representation, to check whether the additional burdens on defense attorneys have resulted in worse access to justice for noncitizen defendants.

The second is that all of us who teach criminal procedure in law schools–I’m going to start this and my chartacourse electronic casebook is available for you to use–have got to revise our curriculum to include a basic crimmigration unit. I’m thinking something between 6-8 hours covering the categorical approach, aggravated felonies, crimes of moral turpitude, some more specific removal categories, and basic situations in which one’s client might interface with the immigration system. In addition, of course, specialty crimmigraiton courses must be offered in every law school that purports to certify ethical defense attorneys for practice. The bar exam, for all its imperfections, can add immigration law to the list of covered subjects, and this would be relatively easy to do in the MBE because it’s federal law.

This is not a perfect solution, given that immigration law changes frequently and is subject to administrative whims (even when not dealing with someone as unhinged as the current occupant of the White House). Because of that, my third thought is that, in offering and taking CLEs, priority must be given to crimmigration updates. If and when we establish a defense bar, crimmigration proficiency has to be prioritized.

Same deal, by the way, for prosecutors: Larry Krasner’s initiative in forming an immigration unit at the D.A.’s office is an essential tool for any prosecutorial outfit that purports to give people what they deserve, rather than indirectly bring about grossly disproportionate punishment. Immigration is not an externality: it is part and parcel of the person’s fate, and has to be treated as such by the D.A.’s office.

If you are a defense attorney and have encountered immigration issues in your criminal practice, I would love to hear from you in the comments.

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1 Comment

  1. I don’t think a lot of the problems you mention come from Padilla’s mandate to advise clients competently on potential immigration consequences, but from the unfortunate reality that criminal convictions can have those immigration consequences. I practice as a public defender in a rural northern California county where most of our public defenders are bright and have familiarized themselves with “crimmigration” enough to spot issues, negotiate “immigration safe” deals and explain complex concepts to clients in an accurate way. A couple of us have become semi-experts, and we all understand our limitations and have contracted for access to true immigration experts. I also heavily document the immigration advice I give so that, if I do turn out to be wrong, my clients will have the benefit of contemporaneous documentation when moving to withdraw their plea (probably many years later). So at least in my world Padilla doesn’t impose a substantial new burden, but it certainly adds a new component to our practice. The local defense bar is somewhat of a sorrier story, I’m sad to say.

    I’d echo your concern about educating prosecutors in addition to the defense bar. Prosecutors, at least in my jurisdiction, are either completely ignorant of immigration consequences or calloused to them (“Hey, I’m just a prosecutor – if a conviction has collateral consequences, that’s outside my purview, and they should have thought of that before they committed a crime anyway”). This is despite a legislative mandate that prosecutors consider the avoidance of adverse immigration consequences during the plea bargaining process (PC 1016.3). A very few prosecutors here honor that and are receptive to attempts to educate them on immigration issues, while DA management takes the position that no stinkin’ legislators from SF and LA are gonna tell them how to run their cases. Worst of all are the prosecutors who use immigration as a bargaining chip (“He can have an immigration-safe plea if he agrees to state prison, or he can have probation if he pleads to what I charged, which will result in deportation”).

    Being married an immigrant myself, the only issue I take with Padilla is that such commonsense notions – a defendant may consider a lifetime of exile more onerous than temporary incarceration, and clients deserve to know the consequences of their pleas – took a Supreme Court case to settle, and even then not unanimously. I have no ethical issues with explaining the consequences of particular deals to my clients, as ultimately it’s their decision to choose what road to take after I’ve given them the information. That doesn’t mean, though, that my heart doesn’t hurt for them when I have to deliver the news.


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