The Supreme Court has ruled to restrict mandatory deportation of immigrants convicted of some crimes, just as President Donald Trump’s administration is looking to increase them.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said the wording of the statute requiring the removal of non-citizens who commit certain felonies was unlawfully vague, a ruling that could limit the Trump administration’s ability to step up the removal of immigrants with criminal records.

Mr Trump’s appointee to the court, conservative judge Neil Gorsuch, joined the court’s four liberal justices in siding with convicted California burglar James Garcia Dimaya, a legal immigrant from the Philippines.

The ruling concerns a provision of immigration law that defines a “crime of violence”. In the US federal criminal code, a “crime of violence” includes offences in which force either was used or carried a “substantial risk” that it would be used.

Such a conviction would make someone eligible for possible deportation and helps to speed up the process.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have defended the principle – with Mr Trump pushing for more violent offenders to be removed from the country.

In 2015, a federal appeals court in San Francisco struck down the provision as too vague, which increased the risk of arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement in violation of the US Constitution, and the Supreme Court agreed. The appeals court based its ruling on a Supreme Court decision from 2015 that voided a similarly worded part of another law regarding longer custodial sentences for criminals.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the 2015 decision “tells us how to resolve this case”.

Dimaya came to the United States from the Philippines as a legal permanent resident in 1992 at age 13 and lived in the San Francisco Bay area. Federal authorities ordered Dimaya deported after he was convicted in two California home burglaries, in 2007 and 2009, though neither crime involved violence. He received a two-year prison sentence for each conviction.

In 2010, the Obama administration brought removal proceedings against Dimaya. 

The Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals refused to cancel his expulsion as his convictions counted as an “aggravated felony” under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which authorises removal of non-citizens who have been convicted of some violent crimes and that “aggravated felony” as a “crime of violence.”

In joining the four liberal judges, Justice Gorsuch was continuing the jurisprudence of Justice Antonin Scalia, who also sided with liberals when it came to the vagueness of statutes used to convict criminal defendants. Mr Gorsuch was appointed to the Court in the wake of the Justice Scalia’s death in 2016.

Only eight justices heard the case last term after Justice Scalia’s death, and in late June, the court announced it would re-hear arguments in its current term, likely so that Justice Gorsuch could break a possible tie.