Juan Esquivel-Quintana was a legal permanent resident of the U.S. after immigrating from Mexico. Then he had sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20, went to jail and faced deportation back to Mexico.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision Wednesday, allowing Esquivel-Quintana to remain in the U.S. after a series of failed appeals.
His parents lawfully brought him to the U.S. in 2000, settling in Sacramento, California. He pleaded no contest to statutory rape in 2009, which under California law is defined as “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator.” That would make it illegal for a person who is about to turn 18 to have sex with someone who just turned 21, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion pointed out.
He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years probation, but a more pressing issue arose after his release: Because the sexual abuse of a minor is considered an aggravated felony, the Department of Homeland Security was seeking to have Esquivel-Quintana stripped of his citizenship and deported to Mexico.
Esquivel-Quintana argued that his statutory rape conviction under California law did not equate to the sexual abuse of a minor. A federal court presiding over California agreed with him, but since he had moved to Michigan after his conviction and filed the appeal there, the Board of Immigration Appeals said that federal court’s opinion was not relevant to the case.
But the Supreme Court agreed with him in its decision Wednesday, ruling that in cases of statutory rape based solely on the ages of the participants, sexual abuse of a minor requires that the victim be younger than 16. The court was quick to note that their decision does not change age of consent laws in any state, only whether legal immigrants can be removed from the U.S. based on statutory rape laws.
“The generic crime of sexual abuse of a minor may include a different age of consent where the perpetrator and victim are in a significant relationship of trust,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. “As relevant to this case, however, the general consensus from state criminal codes points to the same generic definition as dictionaries and federal law: Where sexual intercourse is abusive solely because of the ages of the participants, the victim must be younger than 16.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated by President Donald Trump, did not take part in the decision’s ruling. He was not yet appointed to the bench when the case was argued in February.