The Discriminatory Purpose Behind Section 1326
Having established that Arlington Heights was the appropriate standard of review, the court turned to the legislative intent behind section 1326. The defendant argued, and the government conceded, that discriminatory intent motivated the passage of the Undesirable Aliens Act of 1929 (UAA), the first law passed by Congress to criminalize unauthorized reentry into the country. Section 1326 borrowed language from the UAA “almost word for word.”
The government contended that the racial animus of the prior law could not be imputed to a different Congress in its adoption of the same language more than a decade later. The court disagreed, pointing to the fact that Congress adopted the language “without substantially changing the law and without debate or discussion of the invidious racism that motivated the Act of 1929, only to make it more punitive.”
In evaluating whether racial animus motivated the passage of the UAA, the court looked to historical background surrounding the statute. This included sworn testimony from Kelly Lytle Hernández, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who articulated “how immigration legislation and racism were intimately entwined in the 1920s.”
Professor Hernández testified about early quota systems reserving slots for European immigrants, which prompted arguments over whether immigrants from the Western Hemisphere should be exempted to satisfy those who relied on Mexican laborers. She also described a “Juan Crow” regime that developed during the 1920s, “a racialized subjugation system…that mirrors what [was] happening in the American South.” Against this backdrop, Hernández posited, the illegal reentry provision of the UAA was “intended to target Latinos.”
The court also considered legislative history surrounding the congressional debates over passage of the UAA and of section 1326 in 1952. According to Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien, professor of political science at San Diego State University, “the contrast between extensive congressional debate about other national origin provisions and the comparative lack thereof around section 1326 suggests an acceptance of its history.”
Section 1326’s Disparate Impact
Although no publicly available data reflect the national origin of those prosecuted under section 1326, the defendant offered statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehensions showing that 97 percent of persons apprehended at the border in 2000 were of Mexican decent, 86 percent in 2005, and 87 percent in 2010. Many, if not all, of these apprehensions ultimately led to prosecution under the Trump administration’s directives to prosecutors, the defendant argued. The court accepted this data and its comparison to other successful challenges under Arlington Heights to prove the requisite standard of disproportionality.
When the burden shifted to the government, it did not dispute that section 1326 “bears more heavily on Mexican and Latinx individuals.” But the prosecution attributed the disparate impact to geography as opposed to racial animus given Mexico’s proximity to the United States.
The district court was not persuaded, calling the government’s argument “circular and inconclusive.” Explaining that the test for disparate impact only requires evidence that section 1326 “bears more heavily on one race than another,” the court credited the defendant’s data as meeting this standard. It rejected the notion that “the mere over-policing of certain locations…prevents a specific group from raising equal protection challenges.”
In so holding, the court acknowledged that its decision departed from other rulings that applied the Arlington Heights standard of review but concluded that section 1326 was not unconstitutional. The court distinguished those decisions on the grounds that those courts either had not considered the full legislative history, had “blur[red] the defendant’s burden under Arlington Heights,” or had failed to consider the totality of the circumstances.
Congressional Intent and Constitutionality
While there was far less direct and circumstantial evidence to show that discriminatory animus was present when section 1326 was reenacted in 1952 versus its initial adoption in 1929, Litigation Section leaders were not surprised by the court’s exploration of the historical underpinnings of the earlier statute.
“Through a careful analysis of the history of this law and considering the historical perspective that informs the purpose of this statute, the court was able to determine what the true motivation of Congress was in enacting section 1326, which was racial bias,” opines Alexander Wharton, Memphis, TN, cochair of the Section’s Criminal Litigation Committee.
“The federal district court’s landmark decision in Carrillo-Lopez is a remarkable opinion,” agrees Nathan Pearman, Dallas, TX, cochair of the Section’s LGBT Law & Litigator Committee. “The willingness of Judge Du to dive into the legislative history regarding both the 1929 [UAA] bill and the 1952 reenactment to note that racist, nativist motivations dictated both the passage and reenactment is a remarkable development.”
Section leaders believe that the evidence of disparate impact gave the court more room to consider circumstantial historical narrative. “Once a disparate impact was shown to be the case, as it was here, analyzing the motivation of Congress in passing the law was the appropriate course,” Wharton explains. “Without statistical proof of a disparate impact, the court might have been more reluctant to venture into the intent behind the law—particularly the racial animus present at the time that the original version was enacted—but with disproportionality so established, the purpose of the law colors the conversation in an impactful way.”
The decision will likely have a broad reach, according to Section leaders. “The court’s disparate impact analysis opens the door to other equal protection challenges and, potentially, legislative and/or administrative solutions that would result in de-prioritizing criminal prosecutions for unauthorized entries and re-entries and ending prosecutions of migration-related offenses that deny individuals due process and the right to a fair hearing,” Pearman predicts.