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Supreme Court sides with undocumented immigrant; justices divided over importance of one word

Supreme Court
Posted at 4:41 PM, Apr 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-29 16:49:11-04

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 in favor of an immigrant fighting deportation, saying the government must comply strictly with requirements about notices for deportation hearings.

The case was about Agusto Niz-Chavez, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2005 from Guatemala, and a 1996 federal law.

In 2013, Niz-Chavez received a notice to appear at a deportation hearing, however the notice he received did not include a date or time. Two months later, a second notice had instructions on when and where to show up for the hearing.

The federal law allows immigrants subject to deportation to apply to stay in this country if they meet various criteria, one criteria is being in the country for at least ten years. For that provision, the counting of accrued time in this country stops once an immigrant receives "a notice to appear" for a deportation hearing which lists various information including the nature of the hearing, location and date, according to the statute.

The justices were ruling on whether the government had to provide all the information at once or could do so in pieces.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the case came down to a single word.

“To an ordinary reader — both in 1996 and today — ‘a’ notice would seem to suggest just that: ‘a’ single document containing the required information, not a mishmash of pieces with some assembly required,” he wrote.

“Someone who agrees to buy ‘a car’ would hardly expect to receive the chassis today, wheels next week, and an engine to follow," Gorsuch added.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the court should take a less literal interpretation of the word "a."

“By contrast, it is common to submit ‘a job application’ by sending a résumé first and then references as they are available,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote. “When the final reference arrives, the applicant has submitted ‘a job application.’ Similarly, an author might submit chapters of a novel to an editor one at a time, as they are ready. Upon submission of the final chapter, the author undoubtedly has submitted ‘a manuscript.’”

Niz-Chavez, who settled in Michigan, appeared in court after receiving the notices in 2013 and had been ordered deported. He will now be able to apply for citizenship after the court's ruling.

The decision issued Thursday saw a unique grouping of justices at the Supreme Court, as the three more liberal justices were joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett in the majority.