On March 28, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Vartelas v. Holder. Mr. Vartelas was convicted of a counterfeit offense in 1994. In 2004, he traveled abroad and was placed in removal proceedings upon his return to the United States. Prior to 1997, the law provided that if he had traveled abroad, he would have been allowed to return to the United States. However, under changes in the immigration laws that occurred in 1997, he was classified as an “arriving alien.” The first two immigration attorneys that he hired conceded that he was subject to inadmissibility. His third immigration lawyer argued that since the immigration law at the time of his plea agreement permitted him to travel, the 1997 law should not be applied to him. The Supreme Court agreed finding that the 1997 law was impermissibly retroactive to Mr. Vartelas. Thus, Mr. Vartelas can no longer be classified as an arriving alien.
I am a little concerned that people may hear about the Vartelas decision and mistakenly believe that it is safe for all residents with criminal history to travel. This is not correct. Not everyone will benefit from the new Supreme Court case. Mr. Vartelas’ case involves very special circumstances. Mr. Vartelas had a very old conviction from 1994. The Supreme Court’s decision only applies to convictions before April 1, 1997. For anyone who has a conviction after April 1, 1997, if they travel, they risk being classified as an arriving alien and placed in removal proceedings.
Even though he won his case, it took approximately eight years of litigation for him to do so. Mr. Vartelas’ case demonstrates the importance of lawful permanent residents with criminal convictions consulting with immigration lawyers before traveling outside of the United States. The Supreme Court’s decision does not address this, but green card holders classified as arriving aliens can be detained indefinitely without a bond hearing pending the outcome of their removal proceedings. Mr. Vartelas was very fortunate that the Immigration Customs Enforcement had decided not to detain him.
Mr. Vartelas’ case also demonstrates the importance of finding a good immigration lawyer. His first two immigration attorneys conceded that he was an arriving alien. If he had not found a new immigration attorney, he would have been deported.