WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court will decide whether the government is free to deport illegal immigrants who came to this country as children and whose parents became lawful residents in the United States.

The issue before the high court has echoes of last week's debate among Republican presidential contenders, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was criticized for his state's policy of giving in-state tuition to students who are illegal immigrants. Perry argued that students who came to Texas through "no fault of their own" should not be denied the benefits of low tuition in the state's colleges.

The case before the high court concerns whether U.S. immigration officials should avoid deporting illegal immigrants who came to this country as minors and, as Perry said, through no fault of their own. The government says it mainly targets criminals for deportation, and the immigrant in this case was arrested for trying to smuggle children across the border.

Courts on the West Coast have blocked deportation orders for some illegal immigrants because their parents had gained "permanent residence" status and lived in the United States for more than seven years. Federal law cites these two factors as reasons for halting a deportation. And the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has taken it a step further, deciding that a "parent's status as a lawful permanent resident is imputed" to the "children residing with that parent."

But Obama administration lawyers said the 9th Circuit is the only appeals court to adopt that view, and it is wrong as a matter of law. They urged the Supreme Court to rule that immigrants cannot "rely on a parent's status" to avoid deportation.

In appealing the issue, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said the 9th Circuit's approach "precludes uniform administration of the immigration laws (and) also impedes the government's high-priority efforts to remove criminal aliens."

The government said it did not have statistics on how often this issue arises. However, it said more than 40 percent of "all cancellation of removal applications" were filed last year in California and the other eight states where the 9th Circuit had jurisdiction.

The case before the court concerns a Mexican native who came to California in 1989 when he was 5. Carlos Martinez Gutierrez went to school in Santa Clara County and has worked since then at a K-mart and a Costco Wholesale store. In 2005, however, he was arrested after crossing into the United States with three undocumented children. He was charged with attempted alien smuggling and was slated for deportation.

But an immigration judge canceled the deportation, citing the fact that Martinez's father had been a lawful permanent resident in 1991 and that Martinez had grown up in his father's home.

Disputing this decision, Verrilli said Martinez cannot rely on his father's permanent residence to ward off deportation.

Washington lawyer Stephen Kinnaird, who has urged the court to uphold the 9th Circuit's decision, said its approach "is important for maintaining the family-unity policy in our immigration laws."

The high court said it will hear the case of Holder v. Martinez Gutierrez early next year.