The U.S. Supreme Court extended a victory for longtime immigrants who entered the country illegally but now have strong ties to the community and want to stay.
The justices on Thursday sided with a Guatemalan national who sought to take advantage of a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that made it harder to carry out deportations in certain circumstances.
The 6-3 decision authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch focused on a single word to resolve a split among the circuits and broke along non-ideological lines. It also demonstrated how liberals may be able to pull off victories by splitting the conservative vote. The majority also included Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Gorsuch, in the case involving the Homeland Security process for notifying immigrants of deportation hearings, said the government must notify immigrants of the time and place of their hearings in a single document—not multiple ones over time—in order to make them ineligible for discretionary relief that could allow them to avoid deportation.
He noted the government’s “affinity for forms” and the sometimes harsh penalties faced by those who make mistakes on them. “If men must turn square corners when they deal with the government, it cannot be too much to expect the government to turn square corners when it deals with them,” he said.
As has happened in previous cases where the liberals prevailed, both the majority and dissent employ textualism—the doctrine that judges should apply the plain meaning of the words in a statute—to get to opposite results, with both sides accusing the other of trying to rewrite the federal immigration law.
Hardship to U.S. Citizens
A key element in Agusto Niz-Chavez’s case is how the timing and content of a DHS “notice to appear” can interrupt the timeline for continuous residency of seven to 10 years necessary to avoid being removed from the country, if other requirements are also met.
Such relief is intended for longtime immigrants whose deportation would cause harm to U.S. citizens. Niz-Chavez entered the U.S. in 2005, and is now the breadwinner for his long-time partner and their three young children, who are Americans.
Up to 4,000 immigrants a year are eligible to receive “cancellation of removal” to avoid breaking up families.
The court ruled 8-1 in 2018’s Pereira v. Sessions that “a notice to appear” isn’t valid unless it includes the date and time of a proceeding. The court this time again sided with the non-citizen, saying the agency can’t remedy an incomplete notice by including the date and time in follow-up documents.
The majority in Thursday’s opinion focused on “a” in “a notice to appear” to say that the government must supply a single document with all of the relevant information.
Niz-Chavez received one document that specified the charges against him. Two months later, he was informed of the time and place of his hearing.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said that was sufficient to trigger the so-called stop-time rule and bar Niz-Chavez from seeking relief. Other circuits had gone the other way, and the Supreme Court sided with those courts.
The ruling means the government didn’t stop the clock on the residency requirement in time to bar Niz-Chavez from being considered for relief. “At one level, today’s dispute may seem semantic, focused on a single word, a small one at that,” Gorsuch wrote.
The use of textualism by both the majority and dissent may explain why the court’s conservatives—who tend to embrace textualism—appeared on opposite sides.
The court’s more liberal justices—Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan—were able to pull Thomas, Gorsuch, and Barrett to their side for the win despite conservatives 6-3 hold on the court.
It’s a strategy they’ve been able to employ to in some run-of-the-mill cases, like this one, as well as blockbusters, like last term’s decision that federal anti-discrimination laws protect gay and transgender workers. That decision also feature completing textualist interpretations of the relevant law.
‘Thinnest of Technicalities’
The dissent makes many of the same arguments advanced by the majority.
“Put simply, the Court’s argument based on the placement of a quotation mark contravenes the straightforward statutory structure and makes little sense,” Kavanaugh wrote.
As the dissent sees it, that clock is stopped when the non-citizen receives receives the time and date of their hearing, even if it is done in two, or even more, documents.
At that time the noncitizen has all of the information that federal immigration law requires in order to stop the clock, Kavauagh said.
The court’s ruling creates “a windfall based on the thinnest of technicalities.”
Moreover, it “will impose significant costs on the immigration system, which of course means more backlog for other noncitizens involved in other immigration cases,” Kavanaugh said.
The case is Niz-Chavez v. Garland, U.S., No. 19-863.