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What’s an “Aggravated Felony”?

Values: Everyone deserves a fair day in court and equal treatment before the law

In any fair system of justice, everyone has a right to due process and a full hearing, regardless of immigration status.

Problem: Immigrants convicted of so-called “aggravated felonies” are treated unfairly and punished disproportionately

“Aggravated felony” is an immigration law term used to describe a category of offenses carrying the harshest immigration consequences for non-citizens, among them long-term legal residents, typically detention and deportation and a lifetime bar to returning to the U.S. or, for many, to gaining legal status.

  • Over-broad definition

An “aggravated felony” under immigration law doesn’t have to correspond to an “aggravated” offense or a “felony” under criminal law. As enacted in 1988, the term referred to a relatively few crimes that were considered extremely serious. Over the years, the US Congress has steadily expanded the category; it now includes simple battery, theft, filing a false tax return, and failing to appear in court. The changes were made retroactive on convictions, no matter when they were received, including crimes that were not a basis for deportation when they were committed.

  • Denial of due process

Many immigrants with aggravated felony convictions are deported without a hearing, with low-level immigration officials making the determination. Since an aggravated felony conviction triggers mandatory deportation with very few exceptions, those who do get a hearing discover that immigration judges are virtually powerless to do anything but order them deported, no matter how old or minor their offense, and regardless of  individual circumstances, such as family ties in the United States, service in the military, evidence of good moral character, or contributions to community.

  • Disproportionate punishment

The US Supreme Court has acknowledged that deportation is a “drastic” punishment, yet it’s one that’s routinely meted out each year to thousands of immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies. Undocumented immigrants and lawful permanent residents, many with deep family and community ties in the US and including even asylees and refugees, are denied any chance at obtaining legal status or reentering the US once deported, and those who attempt to do so may be jailed for up to 20 years.


  • Narrow the definition of “aggravated felony” under immigration law to reflect common sense, proportionality, and the American values of justice and fairness
  • Ensure that every immigrant facing deportation gets a full and fair hearing before a judge who has discretion to consider the facts of each case individually
  • Eliminate bars to relief from deportation for immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies
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