Washington (CNN)James Dimaya thought he was on the verge of deportation last year. Then, President Donald Trump's first Supreme Court nominee saved him.
Meet the immigrant who got a second chance from Justice Neil Gorsuch
Now Dimaya is in the clear, working as a delivery driver in California and eternally grateful to Neil Gorsuch, perhaps an unexpected hero.
"I'm truly blessed for Mr. Gorsuch," Dimaya told CNN in an interview. "I thank God I've been given a second opportunity."
Dimaya was admitted to the United States in 1992 as a lawful permanent resident. In 2007 and 2009, however, he pleaded no contest to charges of residential burglary in California. In 2010, the Obama administration brought removal proceedings against him. He feared that he'd be sent back to the Philippines, a country he barely knows, while most of his immediate family lives in the United States.
Dimaya says that back then he had gotten "caught up" in drugs and gang life.
An immigration judge determined that he was removable from the US for his two state convictions because they qualified as an "aggravated felony" under the Immigration and Nationality Act that authorizes removal of non-citizens who have been convicted of some violent crimes and defines aggravated felony to include "crimes of violence."
Dimaya's lawyers challenged the order, however, arguing that the law used against him was unconstitutionally vague.
"At the core, we argued that people of ordinary intelligence couldn't understand what kinds of crimes could trigger removal," Andrew Knapp, a professor of law at Southwestern Law School, told CNN.
"Vague laws lend themselves to arbitrary enforcement, which can be used in a discriminatory way," Knapp said.
As the case was headed to the Supreme Court, Dimaya says got nervous because he had been told that the justices might be closely divided.
When he heard that Gorsuch "got appointed by Donald Trump," Dimaya said, "I thought I was going to lose the case."
In April 2018, however, Gorsuch sided with the court's liberals in invalidating the provision of the federal law that requires the mandatory deportation of immigrants who have been convicted of some "crimes of violence," agreeing that the law was unconstitutionally vague.
At the time, Gorsuch hadn't been on the bench very long and some wondered if he might have been more liberal than the President expected. Experienced court watchers knew, though, that Gorsuch's vote was in line with the jurisprudence of the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
Scalia would side with liberals on the bench when it came to the vagueness of statutes used to convict criminal defendants.
In the Dimaya case, Gorsuch did the same thing.
"Vague laws invite arbitrary power," Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion. The court's vagueness doctrine "serves as a faithful expression of ancient due process and separation of powers principles the framers recognized as vital to ordered liberty under our Constitution."
Late last month, the Board of Immigration Appeals officially reversed Dimaya's removal order.
"Thanks to the Supreme Court, Mr. Dimaya regained his permanent resident status and now qualifies to apply for US citizenship," Knapp said.
Immigration expert Stephen Yale-Loehr is quick to note that Gorsuch's vote does not necessarily make him pro-immigrant in every case, as is evidenced by some of his other opinions.
"But like his predecessor, Justice Scalia, he hates vague laws," Yale-Loehr said. "This case shows that Congress needs to be more careful when it drafts immigration laws."