Since 1996 when the immigration law was amended, perhaps thousands of unsuspecting immigrants have been removed because they left the country hoping to return only to be stopped at the airport because an old conviction for smoking grass or jumping the subway turnstile to avoid paying the fare turned up. This is what happened to Panagis Vartelas a few years ago. He has been fighting removal for years and took his case all the way to the Supreme court before his deportation was finally cancelled.
Panagis Vartelas, born and raised in Greece, has resided in the United States for over 30 years. Originally admitted on a student visa issued in 1979, Vartelas became a lawful permanent resident in 1989. He currently lives in the New York area and works as a sales manager for a roofing company. In 1992, Vartelas opened an auto body shop in Queens, New York. One of his business partners used the shop’s photocopier to make counterfeit travelers’ checks. Vartelas helped his partner perforate the sheets into individual checks, but Vartelas did not sell the checks or receive any money from the venture. In 1994, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to make or possess counterfeit securities, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §371. He was sentenced to four months’ incarceration, followed by two years’ supervised release
Vartelas regularly traveled to Greece to visit his aging parents in the years after his 1994 conviction; even after the law was changed in 1996, his return to the United States from these visits remained uneventful. In January 2003, however, when Vartelas returned from a week-long trip to Greece, an immigration officer classified him as an alien seeking “admission.” The officer based this classification on Vartelas’ 1994 conviction. He was ordered removed.
Vartelas appealed on the ground that new law, Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), did not reach back to deprive him of lawful resident status based on his pre-IIRIRA conviction. The Board of Immigration Appeals denied his appeal. He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which finally ruled in his favor.
The court said that the new law, may not be applied to lawful permanent residents who committed crimes prior to IIRIRA’s enactment. This does not mean that an immigrant cannot be removed for conviction of a crime. It just means that an old mistake may not come back to haunt you, if it happened prior to the change of the law in1996.
Three of the justices dissented holding that because Vartelas took the trip in 2003, the law in 2003 should apply. That would have made it risky to leave the country if you had been convicted of a crime no matter how long ago.