U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bus sits outside federal court in San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Hundreds of people convicted in San Diego of illegally entering the country will have their cases overturned, and thousands more will have the chance to appeal thanks to a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision this week not to rehear a case that successfully challenged the legitimacy of those convictions.

In July, the 9th Circuit overturned the conviction of Oracio Corrales-Vazquez, who was convicted of illegal entry in federal court in San Diego, a misdemeanor, in 2019. The decision paved the way for far more convicted under similar circumstances to have their convictions tossed.

Corrales, a Mexican citizen, was found by Border Patrol agents in bushes roughly 20 miles east of the Tecate, Mexico, Port of Entry, according to the initial complaint against him.

Corrales effectively argued in his appeal that the government had erred when it charged him with a crime.

The criminal statute at issue allows for people to be charged with illegal entry in a number of scenarios. One is that a person enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than those designated by immigration officers. Another is that they elude examination or inspection by immigration officers. A third is that they enter or attempt to enter the United States by willfully misleading an immigration officer or concealing information from them.

Since the federal government’s zero tolerance policy began in April 2018, prosecutors in San Diego mostly charged people with illegal entry who they said had eluded examination or inspection by immigration officers.

The Federal Defenders of San Diego, the group that takes on the bulk of federal pro-bono criminal defense in the San Diego’s federal court, argued that Corrales couldn’t be charged with that crime because eluding examination or examination could only occur at “places and times designated for examination or inspection by immigration officers,” like a port of entry. He did not enter the United States through a port of entry.

A panel of 9th Circuit judges agreed.

The federal government attempted to appeal the case to the full 9th Circuit, which the court declined, thus cementing the dismissal of hundreds of illegal entry convictions. In its petition, the government wrote that there were “[n]early 500 appeals (at the district and appellate courts) … being stayed pending resolution of this petition.”

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office and defense counsel are working together to identify all cases that must be dismissed,” said Doug Keller, an appellate attorney at the Federal Defenders of San Diego who worked on the case. “Under Corrales-Vazquez, every single defendant who pled guilty to illegal entry in the Southern District of California during the first year of Operation Streamline was factually innocent of the charged crime. The approximately 500 defendants who have their case on appeal should have their conviction vacated soon. There are several thousand other defendants who didn’t appeal. Those defendants can try to get their conviction overturned, too.”

The U.S. attorney’s office of the Southern District of California declined to comment.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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