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Supreme Court upholds law against encouraging illegal immigration

The court rejected a challenge to the law by Helaman Hansen, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for running a program charging as much as $10,000 for a purported pathway to citizenship.
Migrants wait in the cold at a gate in the border fence in El Paso, Texas
Migrants wait in the cold at a gate in the border fence in El Paso, Texas, on May 11. Andres Leighton / AP file

The Supreme Court on Friday endorsed a federal law that criminalizes encouraging or inducing illegal immigration, saying it does not unconstitutionally infringe on free speech rights.

The court ruled in a 7-2 vote to uphold the conviction of defendant Helaman Hansen for violating the law.

Writing for the majority, conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett said that the provision in question "forbids only the intentional solicitation or facilitation of certain unlawful acts," not including protected speech. As such the law does not sweep so broadly that it is unconstitutional, Barrett wrote.

The justices were considering the Biden administration’s appeal of a ruling in Hansen's case that struck the law down, saying it violated free speech protections under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Hansen from 2012 to 2016 ran a program in which he charged as much as $10,000 for a purported pathway to citizenship. He claimed that undocumented immigrants could become citizens via an adult adoption service and persuaded 471 people to participate.

At trial in 2017 he was convicted of two counts of violating the federal law that prohibits encouraging or inducing unlawful immigration for private financial gain. He was also convicted of 12 counts of mail fraud and three counts of wire fraud, convictions that are not at issue in the Supreme Court case.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck the law down in February 2022, saying its language was so broad that it could lead to someone’s being convicted merely for saying, “I encourage you to reside in the United States.”

Esha Bhandari, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the court interpreted the provision narrowly, meaning that the Justice Department would have to be careful in deciding which cases to bring.

"As written by Congress, the law has left people wondering what they can safely say on the subject of immigration. Now we expect the government to respect free speech rights and only enforce the law narrowly going forward," she added.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

The Supreme Court in 2020 heard a similar case but sidestepped a ruling on the law’s constitutionality.

The ruling Friday was one of two on immigration-related themes, both of which the Biden administration won. In the other, the court revived President Joe Biden's immigration enforcement priorities.