April 20, 2021
The Supreme Court on Monday expressed doubts about whether noncitizens who’ve been granted humanitarian relief from deportation can seek lawful permanent residency in the US, through a process known as “adjustment of status,” without first leaving the country.
The case’s outcome could affect more than 400,000 noncitizens who entered the United States illegally but live here under temporary federal protection. It concerns whether these people, many of whom claimed to have fled natural disasters, can apply for lawful residency without having to leave the country first.
During oral arguments by telephone on Monday, the court questioned whether the terms of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which shields them from deportation, allows an ease of access to green cards.
“We need to be careful about tinkering with the immigration statutes as written, particularly when Congress has such a primary role here,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh told lawyers representing the immigrants. “You have an uphill climb, textually speaking.”
“We need to be careful about tinkering with the immigration statutes as written, particularly when Congress has such a primary role here,” Kavanaugh said. “Why should we jump in here, when Congress is very focused on immigration?”
Justice Clarence Thomas also questioned whether Sanchez and Gonzalez where legally admitted, saying the two “clearly were not admitted at the borders.” “So is that a fiction?” Thomas said. “Is it metaphysical? What is it? I don’t know,” he added.
The Biden administration argues the court should defer to the government’s interpretation as a reasonable one, a position that might leave the government free to adopt a different approach later. But the lawyers for the government stopped short of explicitly saying, as the Trump team did, that its position was “clearly” the best reading of the key statutory language.
Biden’s team inherited the case from former President Donald Trump’s administration, which formalized the policy. Responding to the government’s lackluster argument, Chief Justice John Roberts told a Justice Department lawyer, “I was struck by the extent to which your brief undersold your position.”
The case , Sanchez v. Mayorkas, arose after Jose Sanchez and Sonia Gonzalez, a married couple from El Salvador who have lived in the United States for decades, applied for and received TPS after El Salvador suffered a series of earthquakes in 2001.
In 2007, Sanchez received an employment visa through his employer and seven years later, he sought to use that visa to get what’s known as an “adjustment” to permanent status for himself and his wife. But U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services rejected his application in 2015, saying Sanchez was ineligible because he had “never been admitted into the United States.”
Federal law requires green card applicants to have been “inspected and admitted” into the country.
Sanchez and Gonzalez contend they met the “inspected and admitted” requirement because they were approved for the TPS program.