A federal law that makes it a crime for a person to encourage illegal immigration does not violate constitutional free speech protections, the US Supreme Court ruled on Friday in upholding the decades-old measure defended by President Joe Biden's administration.
The 7-2 ruling overturned a lower court's decision to strike down the provision, part of a larger immigration statute, in a case involving a California man named Helaman Hansen who deceived immigrants through a phony "adult adoption" program. The lower court had ruled that the law was overly broad because it may criminalize speech protected by the US Constitution's First Amendment.
The measure bars inducing or encouraging noncitizens "to come to, enter or reside" in the United States illegally, including for financial gain.
Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who wrote the ruling, said that the law does not prohibit a substantial amount of protected speech.
Endorsing the administration's view of the law, Barrett wrote: "Properly interpreted, this provision forbids only the intentional solicitation or facilitation of certain unlawful acts."
Liberal Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the decision.
The case was one of two immigration-related rulings issued by the court on Friday. The justices also upheld the Biden administration's move to narrow the scope of those who can be targeted by immigration agents for arrest and deportation, a shift that had been challenged by the republican attorneys general in Texas and Louisiana. The court said those states did not have legal standing to challenge the new guidelines.
The San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals had tossed out Hansen's 2017 conviction for violating the measure. Hansen also was convicted of mail and wire fraud and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Hansen was out of prison pending his appeal.
Federal prosecutors accused Hansen of deceiving immigrants in the United States illegally by promising them between 2012 and 2016 that they could gain American citizenship through an "adult adoption" program operated by his Sacramento-based business, Americans Helping America Chamber of Commerce.
The prosecution said Hansen persuaded at least 471 people to join his program, charging each of them up to $10,000 even though he "knew that the adult adoptions that he touted would not lead to US citizenship." Hansen and his program collected more than $1.8 million through the scheme, authorities said.
In decision striking down the law, the 9th Circuit ruled that it criminalizes even commonplace speech such as telling immigrants who are in the country illegally, "I encourage you to reside in the United States," or advising them about available social services. The 9th Circuit upheld Hansen's other convictions and ordered that he be resentenced.
The 9th Circuit decision applies in the group of western states over which it has jurisdiction including Arizona and California, which border Mexico.
The Denver-based 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against the law in a separate case.
Biden's administration argued that the law does not cover certain hypothetical scenarios that concerned the 9th Circuit, such as simply encouraging immigrants in the country illegally to remain in the United States or advising them about available social services.
The administration urged the justices to restore an "important tool for combating activities that exacerbate unlawful immigration," particularly because of the high volume of immigration-related litigation and criminal prosecutions that occur in the states covered by the 9th Circuit.
Various free speech, libertarian and press advocacy groups had filed briefs backing Hansen, urging the justices not to trust government promises of limited prosecutions. These groups argued that the law threatens attorneys, doctors, scholars and anyone else who speaks in support of immigration.