Bill of Rights protections for all — or maybe just for some: Are non-citizens protected?

Background

In contrast with the Fifth and Sixth Amendments’ use of the words “person” and “accused,” the First, Second and Fourth Amendments’ text protects certain rights of “the people.” The Fifth and Sixth Amendments prescribe certain rights of individuals in criminal proceedings, while the First, Second, and Fourth provide rights to the public at large. This distinction affects who is protected by these amendments.

Who are “the people” protected by the First, Second and Fourth Amendments? An obvious starting point would be citizens of the United States. But what about permanent resident aliens and refugees residing in the US? What about aliens living in the US without a legal immigration status? Those on a temporary stay visa? Or other classes that may attempt to claim the right? The Supreme Court purported to answer these questions in United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez (1990). It held that the use of “people” in the Fourth Amendment, as well as in the First and Second Amendments, refers to “a class of persons who are part of a national community or who have otherwise developed sufficient connection with [the United States] to be considered part of that community.” The problem then is determining who is part of this national community. Who is considered to have sufficient connection with the United States such that their rights are protected by the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments?

Issue

The Supreme Court has not further clarified who falls under the umbrella of “the people,” and whether the class of “people” is the same in the First, Second and Fourth Amendments. The Court, instead, has left it to lower courts to wrestle with what determines if an individual is part of the class for asserting a constitutional right.  As a result, a difficult question courts have grappled with is whether aliens unlawfully residing in the United States are part of “the people.” With over twelve million such aliens currently residing in the United States, there is a need for a definite answer on what constitutional protections they possess. The Supreme Court in Verdugo-Urquidez declined to decide this issue because “such a claim [was not] squarely before” it. The Court did, however, suggest that an alien who is in the United States voluntarily and has accepted “some societal obligations” may be considered part of “the people.”

The Split

There is a split between the Fifth and the Seventh Circuit on the issue in relation to the Second Amendment. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in United-States v. Portillo-Munoz (2011) held that an alien unlawfully residing in the United States is not a member of “the people” and therefore not given the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Armando Portillo-Munoz had acquired a gun to protect his employer’s chickens from coyotes.  He had been voluntarily present, although unlawfully, in the United States. He was working a steady job, paying rent for his home, and financially supporting his girlfriend and daughter. Yet, the court denied him protection under the Second Amendment and emphasized a distinction between aliens in the United States lawfully and those in the United States unlawfully, even those with substantial connections to the United States. The Eight Circuit in United States v. Flores (2011) and the Fourth Circuit in United States v. Carpio-Leon (2012) have taken the same approach.

The dissent in Portillo-Munoz worried about the implications of the majority’s holding not just for the Second Amendment, but for the First and Fourth Amendments as well. The dissent argued that:

There are countless persons throughout Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, who, like Portillo-Munoz, work for employers, pay rent to landlords, and support their loved ones, but are unlawfully residing in the United States. The majority’s reasoning renders them vulnerable — to governmental intrusions on their homes and persons, as well as interference with their rights to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances — with no recourse.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision came in United States v. Meza-Rodriguez (2015). Mariano Meza-Rodriguez was brought to the United States as a young child and had been residing unlawfully in the country since that time. The court held that an alien unlawfully residing in the United States had the Second Amendment right to bear arms. It emphasized Meza-Rodriguez’s plainly substantial connections to the United States having lived in the country for several years. Despite its holding on this issue, the court upheld a statute prohibiting aliens such as Meza-Rodriguez from possessing firearms and ammunitions because “the right to bear arms is not unlimited” and the ban on the possession of firearms by such aliens “is substantially related to the statute’s general objectives.” Ultimately, the Seventh Circuits disagreement with the Fifth Circuit was not essential to the holding of the case.

While there is not much consideration on the issue with regard to the First Amendment, several circuits have provided Fourth Amendment protections to aliens unlawfully residing in the United States and none have definitively denied the protection. The Fifth Circuit opined in Martinez-Aguero v. Gonzalez (2006) that “cases from [the Fifth Circuit] state unequivocally that aliens are entitled to Fourth Amendment protection.” More recently, during immigration proceedings against a putative alien, the Ninth Circuit stated that in such proceedings it allows for the “suppression of any evidence seized in connection with a Fourth Amendment violation that is egregious.” Armas-Barranzuela v. Holder (9th Cir. 2014). The First Circuit follows a similar approach. Garcia-Aguilar v. Lynch (1st Cir. 2015).

Looking Forward

It is difficult to say when there will be an end to the Supreme Court’s exercise in constitutional avoidance on the issue. In Hernandez v. Mesa (2017), the Court declined to address the related issue of whether a Mexican national shot at the border of the United States and Mexico could claim Fourth Amendment rights because “it is sensitive and may have consequences that are far reaching.” Something to keep an eye on is congressional action on immigration and the potential impact on the status of aliens unlawfully residing in the United States as part of “the people.” However, the legislative landscape is even more fraught with uncertainty than the judicial landscape.

Further Reading:

Mathilda McGee-Tubb, Sometimes You’re in, Sometimes You’re out: Undocumented Immigrants and the Fifth Circuit’s Definition of “The People” in United States v. Portillo-Muñoz, 53 B.C.L. Rev. E. Supp. 75 (2012), http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/bclr/vol53/iss6/7