WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court’s conservatives voiced skepticism Monday over whether immigrants living in the country with temporary protection from deportation should be permitted to apply for green cards and make their stay permanent.
At issue is whether some 400,000 foreign nationals from countries enduring natural disasters or armed conflict who have been granted temporary legal status in the USA meet the requirements for green cards if they initially entered the country illegally.
“We need to be careful about tinkering with the immigration statutes as written, particularly when Congress has such a primary role here,” Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh told a lawyer for the two immigrants – a New Jersey couple from El Salvador – who filed the appeal. “You have an uphill climb, textually speaking.”
The case centers on Jose Sanchez and Sonia Gonzalez, who have lived in the United States legally for two decades under a federal program called Temporary Protected Status. TPS is granted for certain immigrants who the government determines cannot safely return to their home country. When Sanchez and Gonzales applied for green cards they were denied because they had entered the country illegally.
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Though technical, the case has significant implications for TPS beneficiaries and it comes at a time when the Biden administration is wrestling with a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, an influx of Central Americans seeking harbor in the United States. The number of migrant encounters on the border increased 71% in March compared with February, according to recent Department of Homeland Security data.
Federal statute requires green card applicants to have been “inspected and admitted or paroled into” the United States. Sanchez and Gonzalez say the admission happened when they were granted TPS status. But several justices on Monday asserted that such a reading required courts to infer a meaning not explicitly approved by Congress.
“I can’t follow the logic of your main submission,” Chief Justice John Roberts told the attorney representing the immigrants. “It doesn’t say that you are deemed to have been admitted and inspected; it says that you have non-immigrant status.”
Amy Saharia, the attorney representing Sanchez and Gonzalez, countered that Congress deliberately chose “broad language” to achieve “multiple different objectives” so that TPS beneficiaries could adjust their immigration status.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor pressed the attorney representing the Biden administration, Michael Huston, on another point: Aren’t TPS beneficiaries who leave the country for travel “admitted” when they return to the United States? Wouldn’t that satisfy the statute’s requirement that they are “inspected” upon reentry, she asked.
Huston asserted that the immigrants would return to the United States under the same immigration status they had when they left.
“It makes no sense to me,” Sotomayor said. “How can you win on that argument?”
Immigrant advocates say the case raises questions about the Biden administration’s approach to TPS. The president, who has rolled back many Trump-era immigration policies, proposed a bill to allow TPS recipients to apply for green cards, regardless of how they entered the country. But the administration has defended the interpretation of the statute as currently barring that practice.
Opponents of extending green cards to TPS recipients note that the protection was intended to be temporary, not permanent.
The Biden administration designated two new countries for the program last month –Venezuela and Myanmar – bringing the number of countries to 12.
Several of the designations for other counties have been extended for years. For El Salvador, for instance, President George W. Bush first granted TPS in 2001 following two earthquakes – and the status was repeatedly extended. To be eligible for TPS, an immigrant must prove they have been in the US since the designation.
The fact that the program’s “temporary” relief has continued for decades is a point Kavanaugh raised during the arguments.
“It puts the people in a very awkward position, year after year,” he told the attorney representing the Biden administration. “And I’m sure you understand that.”