Federal Appeals Court upholds law against deported immigrants’ re-entry

Image of U.S.-Mexico border by CJ's Donna King.

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  • The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has joined three other federal circuits in upholding a law against re-entry into the United States by deported immigrants.
  • In a case from North Carolina, six deported immigrants had challenged the law as discriminatory against Mexican and Central American immigrants.
  • A unanimous 4th Circuit panel affirmed the trial judge's ruling that defendants had failed to prove their case challenging the 1952 federal law.

The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest federal appellate court to uphold a law against deported immigrants re-entering the United States. Six immigrants charged under the act in North Carolina had challenged the law as racially discriminatory.

A unanimous 4th Circuit panel issued an opinion Thursday upholding US District Judge Catherine Eagles’ decision in the consolidated case of all six criminal defendants. The challenged law is known as Section 1326.

“Like virtually every other court to consider such a claim, the district court rejected the defendants’ argument, finding that they had not carried their burden of showing that racial discrimination was a motive for enacting § 1326. We now affirm the judgment of the district court,” wrote Appeals Court Judge Pamela Harris.

Under the federal law, “any non-citizen who ‘has been denied admission, excluded, deported, or removed’ and then ‘enters, attempts to enter, or is at any time found in, the United States’ without proper authorization is subject to criminal penalties.”

Section 1326 was part of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, a “’full and complete’ overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws,” Harris wrote. The act preserved an existing national-origin quota system. “It also sought to ensure that the new immigration system would be free of racial discrimination, in part by eliminating bars to naturalization based on race.”

The 1952 law included a new illegal re-entry provision that replaced three separate provisions against re-entry. Congress never debated the illegal re-entry provision. Nor did President Harry Truman discuss it when he vetoed the bill because of concerns about the quota system. Truman thought the bill “disfavored people from Southern and Eastern Europe,” Harris wrote.

The six defendants in the 4th Circuit case challenged their indictments “on the ground that § 1326 violates the equal protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment because it was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose,” Harris explained. They claimed the disputed section targeted “Mexican and Central American immigrants.”

The defendants focused on an earlier immigration law from 1929. “The main thrust of the defendants’ argument was that the 1929 Act’s illegal reentry provision was based on racial animus, and that this animus carried forward to the INA’s enactment of substantially the same provision,” Harris wrote.

Eagles accepted that the 1929 law might have had “underlying racist motivations.” “But the case for impermissible racial bias with respect to the 1952 Act and § 1326 itself, the court continued, was ‘much weaker,’ in part because there was evidence that other purposes – ‘economic factors, labor market factors, national security factors’ – motivated both § 1326’s original enactment and its repeated amendments ‘well into the modern era.’” Harris wrote.

“Ultimately, the court was not persuaded that any racial animus from 1929 ‘continued into 1952 and beyond,’” Harris added.

“Claims just like this have been considered and rejected by dozens of courts around the country,” Harris explained. “Virtually without exception, all have found that regardless of the origins of the 1929 Act, it cannot be shown that § 1326, enacted almost 25 years later, was motivated by racial bias.”

The 3rd, 5th, and 9th Circuits already had addressed the issue.

“[T]he defendants bear the burden of showing, based on the factors set out by the Supreme Court, that racial bias against Mexican and Central American immigrants was ‘a motivating factor’ for Congress when it enacted § 1326 in 1952,” Harris wrote. “After an extensive evidentiary hearing, the district court found that the defendants had not carried that burden. Finding no clear error in that factual determination, we affirm.”

“The defendants attempt to bridge the lengthy gap between 1929 and 1952 by claiming that the 1952 Congress simply ‘recodified’ or ‘reenacted’ the 1929 Act,” Harris wrote. Yet “§ 1326 is not in fact a ‘simple recodification’ of the 1929 Act.”

“[A]s the Fifth Circuit emphasized, the clock does not stop in 1952. Congress has amended § 1326 multiple times since its original enactment, most recently in 1996, and the defendants do not meaningfully contend that any of those later congressional actions was based on racial discrimination,” Harris added. “On the contrary, the district court found that other factors, including ‘economic factors, labor market factors, [and] national security factors,’ were the overriding concern for Congress ‘into 1952 and beyond,’ as it continuously refined § 1326.”

“By all appearances, Congress never even considered what effect § 1326 might have on the Mexican and Central American immigrants the defendants claim it targeted because of their race,” the 4th Circuit opinion explained.

Appellate judges rejected the defendants’ argument about the “disparate impact” of Section 1326 enforcement on immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

“[T]here is nothing surprising – or more to the point, suspicious – about the fact that an illegal reentry provision bears most heavily on populations with whom this country shares a several-thousand-mile border,” Harris wrote. “As multiple courts have recognized, ‘any disparate impact’ in § 1326 prosecutions is readily ‘explained by the geographic proximity of the border to Mexico and Latin America.’”

“All told, we agree with the district court and the other courts to have considered this question. The 1929 Act notwithstanding, Congress’s 1952 passage of § 1326 is entitled to a presumption of legislative good faith,” Harris concluded. “Indeed, as the district court noted, 1952’s INA had a distinctly ‘antiracist component,’ eliminating racial bars to naturalization and other forms of racial discrimination in admissions.”

Chief Judge Albert Diaz and Judge Steven Agee joined Harris’ opinion.