Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC Applauds Supreme Court Decision in Lee v. U.S.

Decision Has Potential to Save Legal Permanent Residents in Criminal Proceedings from Deportation
For Immediate Release
Michelle Boykins 202-296-2300, ext. 0144

Washington, DC — Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Lee v. United States, reinforcing protections for legal permanent residents in criminal proceedings. This decision has the potential to save thousands of legal permanent residents who received erroneous advice about immigration consequences from counsel, and as a result, faced mandatory deportation following plea bargains. Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC (Advancing Justice | AAJC) submitted an amicus brief, first at the certiorari stage, and later at the merits stage, to highlight the importance of this case and its potential impact on immigrants.

In this case, petitioner Jae Lee had entered a guilty plea to criminal charges after being assured by his counsel that he would not be deported by doing so. In the opinion, the Supreme Court noted, “According to Lee, the lawyer assured him that if deportation was not in the plea agreement, ‘the government cannot deport you.’” Unfortunately, the attorney was wrong, and Lee, owner of two self-started restaurants and a legal permanent U.S. resident for 35 years (his entire adult life), faced mandatory deportation.

The Supreme Court held that Lee was prejudiced by the attorney’s error, because “[b]ut for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation.”  Despite the odds that going to trial instead would “[a]lmost certainly” lead to deportation, the Supreme Court found that “[i]f deportation were the ‘determinative issue’ for an individual in plea discussions,” and “if that individual had strong connections to this country and no other,” the slim chance of winning at trial and avoiding deportation is enough to show “reasonable probability” that Lee would have insisted on going to trial instead of taking the plea bargain.  

“The Supreme Court’s clear and unambiguous decision today confirms that noncitizen defendants may rationally be most concerned about deportation risks in criminal proceedings, above risks of longer jail sentences, and must be properly advised of such immigration consequences by their attorneys,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Advancing Justice | AAJC. “Immigrants who, like Lee, have no real ties to any place of residence except the U.S. have a greater concern when entering the criminal justice system and will, therefore, go to extraordinary lengths to remain in the U.S. – including risking longer jail sentences by going to trial to avoid deportation.”

Yang continued, “We elevated this case for Supreme Court consideration because we knew of the potential implications for thousands of legal permanent residents who might be at risk of deportation based on erroneous legal advice with regard to the immigration consequences of their decisions in criminal proceedings. We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court understood these concerns and ruled appropriately to protect the rights of immigrant defendants.”