(CN) – The Fifth Circuit heard arguments Wednesday in two cases centered on whether the federal government is required to send correspondence to a foreign address to notify a person in the U.S. illegally about their court proceedings.
According to a lawyer representing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was named as the defendant in both cases, not having a U.S. address where the government could send certified mail means the person dismissed themselves from participating in the proceedings.
The underlying case files are sealed, but recordings of Wednesday’s oral arguments were made available by the Fifth Circuit. The panel was made up of U.S. Circuit Judges Grady Jolly, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Don Willett.
Attorney Richard Harrist argued on behalf of Jose Nicolas Ramos-Portillo, a Salvadorian who entered the country in 1993. When Ramos-Portillo first arrived, he gave the name of a village in Salvador as his address.
Harrist argued that even though Ramos-Portillo gave no street address, the village was small enough that everyone knew everyone there and a letter would have reached Ramos-Portillo’s family. He would have gotten the government’s message because he contacted his family about once a week.
But the government did not send a letter to the village when it issued a deportation order for him.
During oral arguments, the judges pointed out the challenge of notifying Ramos-Portillo through his village, which he fled over concerns about gangs in the country.
While the U.S. Postal Service delivers letters internationally, it does not send certified mail to international addresses. And serving him in person brings up issues with the Hague Convention, the judges said.
When the judges pointed out Ramos-Portillo did not check in with the federal government for 20 years, Harrist said his client was waiting for the government to send him a notification at the address he gave.
“He relied on the government’s assurances to him, written and oral,” Harrist said.
Meanwhile, Justice Department attorney Raya Jarawan sought to define how the Fifth Circuit panel should interpret the case.
The judges only have to determine whether the Board of Immigration Appeals abused its discretion when it denied Ramos-Portillo’s appeal, she said.
Jarawan also argued that it was on Ramos-Portillo to notify the government when he got a U.S. address, and to keep the government notified as he moved from job to job across the country – within five days of a move, according to the statute.
Additionally, the Justice Department lawyer said Ramos-Portillo did not fill out federal paperwork correctly.
This case, Jarawan argued, was not the one to decide the foreign address question.
“So we don’t have that proper, beautiful case in front of us to decide if this statute is truly ambiguous or allows for…a foreign address,” Judge Elrod remarked.
The second case also focused on the address issue.
Attorney Nadia Dahab, who represented Melida Teresa Luna-Garcia, a Guatemalan who also gave a village as her foreign address, said the statute governing immigration enforcement was plain: It does not say that foreign nationals stopped by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement need to provide a U.S. address.
“This statute requires only that she’s able to provide an address that she could be contacted and that the government requires written notice,” Dahab said. “It doesn’t require personal service or certified mail or an address where she could have receive certified mail.”
It is unclear when the Fifth Circuit will issue a ruling in the cases.