Justice Department attorney Edwin S. Kneeder said in court that Congress' intention was to get criminal aliens out of the country, including those who committed crimes prior to 1996.
Guttentag said the wording of the statute was too vague and should not be interpreted to extend retroactively. Guttentag argued while residents who committed crimes after 1996 should be subject to the new laws, those with criminal records before 1996 should still be able to request waivers.
Angela Kelly of the National Immigration Forum said there is no way to know the number of people who could be affected by the 1996 laws because no statistics are kept of the number of criminal immigrants.
Carol Wolchok, director of the American Bar Association's Center for Immigration Law and Representation, said the laws have affected tens of thousands of immigrants and their families.
"There are thousands of individuals and families, who, years ago, made a mistake, paid their price, went beyond it and made their lives in the Unites States," Wolchok said. "Since the law changed, their futures have been in limbo."
In 1998, 32-year-old Adrian Sanchez was returning home to Los Angeles from a family trip in Mexico. At the border, Sanchez said U.S. agents told him to report to immigration when he got home, which he promptly did. He was detained for five months.
Sanchez, who is not a part of the cases brought in front of the Supreme Court, now faces deportation for a 1991 drug conviction that involved a $20 marijuana sale, an aggravated felony under the new laws. Sanchez had already served his sentence of probation 10 years ago.
"(The law) is making you pay for the same crime twice," Sanchez said.
The INS could have pursued Sanchez before 1996, but decided not to, said Jonathan Trutt of Citizens and Immigrants for Equal Justice, a support group for families facing deportation under the revised laws. Unless the Supreme Court strikes down the law, Sanchez will be deported, although his two daughters, both U.S. citizens, and the rest of his family will remain in the United States.
"I don't know how I will survive," Sanchez said.
The other main issue in the cases heard Tuesday was whether the courts could challenge INS' interpretation of the law.
"The government is saying the court can't even decide whether the INS misunderstands the law," said Nancy Morawetz, legal counsel for Citizens and Immigrants for Equal Justice.
Kneeder said by law, Congress has been solely responsible for writing laws pertaining to immigration since the INS was created, and that the laws it writes cannot be challenged in court. They can only be changed by an act of Congress, Kneeder said.
While Guttentag agreed the jurisdiction of the INS fell under Congress, he said interpretations of the law must be checked by the judiciary. Guttentag said that judicial review is protected by the U.S. Constitution.