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By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday made it easier for federal authorities to deport certain immigrants who have committed crimes in a victory for President Donald Trump's administration.
The court ruled 5-4 to uphold a lower court decision that found a legal permanent resident from Jamaica named Andre Martello Barton ineligible to have his deportation canceled under a U.S. law that lets some longtime legal residents avoid expulsion. The conservative justices were in the majority, with the liberal justices dissenting.
Barton, a 42-year-old car repair shop manager and father of four, was targeted for deportation after criminal convictions in Georgia for drug and gun crimes.
The decision could affect thousands of immigrants with criminal convictions - many for minor offenses - who reside legally in the United States. There are more than 13 million legal U.S. permanent residents, also known as "green card" holders, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Glenn Fogle, an attorney for Barton, called the ruling "extremely disappointing" and expressed concern for his client, who has already been sent back to Jamaica.
"My heart goes out to Mr. Barton and his family as he is now effectively barred from ever rejoining them in the United States," Fogle said.
The Trump administration argued against Barton's bid to avoid deportation.
Trump's hardline stance on both legal and illegal immigration has been a key feature of his presidency and his 2020 re-election campaign. He has justified his immigration crackdown in part by citing crimes committed by immigrants.
Permanent residents selected for deportation may apply to have their removal canceled if they have been living continuously in the United States for at least seven years, except if they have committed certain serious felonies.
At issue in the case was the meaning of a 1996 change - known as the "stop-time rule" - in U.S. immigration law. This provision disqualifies immigrants who commit certain crimes from this discretionary benefit by stopping the clock on their period of continuous residency.
The federal government had said the rule was triggered in Barton's case because his assault charge would bar his admission into the country, even though as of 1996 he had resided in the United States too long to be declared deportable for that crime.
Barton argued that he could not be found inadmissible because he had already been lawfully admitted.
While noting that deporting a permanent resident is a "wrenching process," conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority on Thursday, disagreed.
"Removal is particularly difficult when it involves someone such as Barton who has spent most of his life in the United States," wrote Kavanaugh, appointed to the court by Trump in 2018. "Congress made a choice, however, to authorize removal of noncitizens - even lawful permanent residents - who have committed certain serious crimes."
In a dissent, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the ruling "at odds with common sense." Sotomayor noted that the immigration judge who heard Barton's case said she would have preferred to grant Barton's bid to avoid deportation, noting that he had rehabilitated and that his four children were all U.S. citizens.
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Barton came to the United States as a teenager with his mother in 1989. He was convicted in Georgia in 1996 of assault and possession of a firearm in an incident in which his friend shot at a house from a car he was driving. Barton also was convicted of drug possession in 2007 and 2008.
In 2017, immigration authorities decided Barton's deportation could not be canceled because the 1996 assault charges triggered the stop-time rule, just months before he reached the seven-year milestone. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2018.
Of the estimated 1.9 million non-citizens the government has deemed deportable based on a criminal convictions, most are legal residents or those in the country on temporary visas, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization.
The ruling came a day after another immigration crackdown by Trump, who ordered a temporary block on some foreigners from permanent residence in the United States, saying he wanted to protect American workers and jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)