Supreme Court directs immigrants’ adult children to back of the line for visas

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WASHINGTON — On a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled Mon­day that the vast ma­jor­ity of im­mi­grant chil­dren who turn 21 while await­ing ap­proval of their fam­i­lies’ visa ap­pli­ca­tions must re­start a pro­cess that takes years.

The di­vided court de­ferred to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s read­ing of a law passed in 2002 that at­tempted to bring or­der to the im­mi­gra­tion pro­cess, in which there are far more ap­pli­ca­tions than avail­able spots.

The law is so am­big­u­ous — one sec­tion “is through and through per­plex­ing,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan — that it is best to leave in­ter­pre­ta­tion to the Board of Im­mi­gra­tion Ap­peals, she said. The fed­eral agency has said cer­tain classes of ap­pli­cants lose their fa­vored sta­tus as chil­dren when they turn 21, even if the pro­cess started years ear­lier.

Justice Kagan said the de­ci­sion would pri­mar­ily af­fect nieces, neph­ews and grand­chil­dren of U.S. cit­i­zens and le­gal per­ma­nent res­i­dents who are try­ing to re­unite their fam­i­lies. The de­ci­sion does not touch on the re­cent mi­gra­tion of thou­sands of chil­dren trav­el­ing on their own across the Mex­i­can bor­der.

The case re­quired a deep dive into com­plex im­mi­gra­tion law and di­vided the court in sev­eral ways. Justice Kagan’s opin­ion was joined by Justices An­thony Ken­nedy and Ruth Bader Gins­burg. Chief Justice John Rob­erts and Justice An­to­nin Sca­lia agreed with the agency’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law but did not go along with Justice Kagan’s de­scrip­tion of the law as hav­ing “con­flict­ing” di­rec­tives.

Justice So­nia So­to­mayor, who like Justice Kagan was nom­i­nated to the court by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, led the dis­sent. She said the law was clearly in­tended to keep fam­i­lies to­gether, and that chil­dren who “aged out” dur­ing the pro­cess should not have to start the pro­cess to get their own vi­sas. She was joined by Justices Clar­ence Tho­mas and Ste­phen Breyer. Justice Samuel Alito filed his own dis­sent.

The agency’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law was chal­lenged by Rosalina Cuel­lar de Oso­rio, a Sal­va­doran im­mi­grant who was the prin­ci­pal ben­e­fi­ciary of a pe­ti­tion filed by her mother, a U.S. cit­i­zen. Her 13-year-old son, Melvin, was what was called a de­riv­a­tive ben­e­fi­ciary.

The ap­pli­ca­tion was ap­proved in 1998, but only a cer­tain num­ber of vi­sas are avail­able each year, and Ms. Cuel­lar de Oso­rio’s did not come un­til 2005 — four months af­ter Melvin turned 21. The par­ents im­mi­grated, but gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials said Melvin no lon­ger qual­i­fied as an el­i­gi­ble child, and he was placed at the back of the line, re­sult­ing in a wait of sev­eral more years.

The 9th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals ruled for the fam­ily, but other courts have de­ferred to the agency, set­ting up Mon­day’s de­ci­sion.

Justice Kagan said it was the court’s prece­dent to de­fer to agen­cies when the law is am­big­u­ous, and that the gov­ern­ment had rea­sons for its rules. In the “un­avoid­ably zero-sum world of al­lo­cat­ing a lim­ited num­ber of vi­sas,” Justice Kagan wrote, ad­mit­ting some means that oth­ers will be left out.

Justice So­to­mayor said it was clear that the law’s in­tent was to treat all those who be­come 21 dur­ing the wait for vi­sas the same, and that the court was wrong to “con­strue the stat­ute as a self-con­tra­dic­tion that was bro­ken from the mo­ment Con­gress wrote it.”

A group of law­mak­ers in­clud­ing Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dianne Fein­stein, D-Calif., sub­mit­ted a brief re­ject­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s view of the law. But any leg­is­la­tive rem­edy to the de­ci­sion would prob­a­bly be com­pli­cated by Con­gress’ im­passe over com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form.

In a sep­a­rate case, the court, by a 7-2 vote, said a group of North Car­o­lina land­own­ers had missed a state dead­line for su­ing a com­pany that con­tam­i­nated their drink­ing wa­ter de­cades ago and ruled that a fed­eral law did not pro­tect such suits. The de­ci­sion af­fects a hand­ful of other states that have such time lim­its and is a blow for a suit on the other side of North Car­o­lina, where fam­i­lies of sev­eral thou­sand for­mer Marines are su­ing over con­tam­i­nated drink­ing wa­ter at Camp Le­jeune.

United States - North America - United States government - Barack Obama - United States Congress - Sonia Sotomayor - Antonin Scalia - Stephen Breyer - John McCain - Elena Kagan - Supreme Court of the United States - North Carolina - Dianne Feinstein - Anthony Kennedy - John Roberts - Samuel Alito - Clarence Thomas - Ruth Bader Ginsburg - CTS Corp

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