Vartelas v. Holder

Facts of the Case

Panagis Vartelas, a native of Greece, became a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 1989. He pleaded guilty to a felony (i.e. conspiring to make a counterfeit security) in 1994, and served a prison sentence of four months for that offense. In 2003, Vartelas traveled to Greece to visit his parents. On his return to the United States a week later, he was treated as an inadmissible alien and placed in removal proceedings. Under the law governing at the time of Vartelas’ plea, an alien in his situation could travel abroad for brief periods without jeopardizing his resident alien status. In 1996, Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) which effectively precluded foreign travel by lawful permanent residents who had a conviction like that of Vartelas. Under IIRIRA, such aliens, on return from a sojourn abroad, however brief, may be permanently removed from the United States. At Vartelas’ removal proceedings, his attorneys conceded removability and requested discretionary relief under former


Can 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(13)(C)(v) be applied retroactively to a Lawful Permanent Resident who pleads guilty to a crime of moral turpitude prior to the effective date of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act?


No. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg–writing for a 6-3 majority–reversed the lower court, holding that a determination of Vartelas’ ability to travel abroad falls under the laws in effect at the time of his conviction. The Court applied the principle against retroactivity. Under this principle, courts will refrain from applying a law retroactively unless Congress expressly provides for it. The Court held that applying the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) imposed a new disability on Vartelas by effectively banning travel abroad. Vartelas also likely relied on the laws at the time, which would allow him brief international trips, when he decided to plead guilty.Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, stating that the applicable activity for deciding retroactivity is not Vartelas’ conviction, but the act of leaving and then attempting to return to the United States. Vertelas’ trip to Greece and return to the U.S. took place after the IIRIRA took effect, so he is subject to the law. Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito joined in the dissent.

Case Information

  • Citation: 566 US _ (2012)
  • Granted: Sep 27, 2011
  • Argued: Jan 18, 2012
  • Decided Mar 28, 2012