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 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