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On May 30, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions. In 2009, Juan Esquivel-Quintana, who was then 21, pleaded no-contest to a California statutory rape offense after engaging in consensual sex with a 17-year old. California criminalizes “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator,” and for this purpose considers anyone under the age of 18 to be a minor. The Department of Homeland Security then initiated removal proceedings against Esquivel-Quintana under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which allows for the removal of any alien convicted of an aggravated felony, including “sexual abuse of a minor”--though it does not define that phrase. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) denied Esquivel-Quintana’s appeal, concluding that the age difference between Esquivel-Quintana and the minor was sufficiently meaningful for their sexual encounter to qualify as abuse of a minor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, deferring to the BIA’s interpretation, denied Esquivel-Quintana’s petition for further review.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether a conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old qualifies as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA. 

By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit. In an opinion by Justice Thomas, the Court held that in the context of statutory rape offenses that criminalize sexual intercourse based solely on the ages of the participants, the generic federal definition of "sexual abuse of a minor" requires the age of the victim to be less than 16. Because the California statute of conviction did not fall categorically within that generic federal definition, Esquivel-Quintana’s conviction was not an aggravated felony under the INA. All other members joined in Justice Thomas’s opinion except Justice Gorsuch, who took no part in the consideration or decision of this case. 

To discuss the case, we have Vikrant Reddy, Senior Research Fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.

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