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High Court Rules Against Protected Immigrants Fighting for Green Cards

In a 9-0 decision, the justices found immigrants who have been allowed to stay in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds cannot seek permanent residency if they entered the country illegally.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that immigrants given temporary protected status cannot be upgraded to legal permanent residency if they came into the United States illegally.

The case involves limits on so-called TPS, which Congress created in 1990 to protect immigrants and refugees from deportation when they’re unable to return home due to natural disasters or armed conflicts, among other conditions.

Jose Santos Sanchez and his wife, Sonia Gonzalez, received this designation in 2001, having fled El Salvador after a devastating earthquake. When the couple sought to adjust their status to that of lawful permanent residents in 2015, however, the Third Circuit ruled them ineligible because they were not properly “inspected and admitted” at a U.S. point of entry.

Monday's ruling doesn't come as a surprise, considering the tough line of questioning the immigrants faced during oral arguments in April.  

Justice Brett Kavanaugh was skeptical from the get-go, saying Sanchez and Gonzalez faced an “uphill climb” with their interpretation of the legal framework.

“We need to be careful when tinkering with the way the statutes are written when Congress has such authority,” the Trump appointee warned during the hearing.

Sure enough, the high court unanimously sided with the Department of Homeland Security, finding federal immigration law is clear when those who enter the country unlawfully seek lawful permanent residency, or LPR.    

“The TPS program gives foreign nationals nonimmigrant status, but it does not admit them,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in an 11-page opinion issued Monday morning. “So the conferral of TPS does not make an unlawful entrant (like Sanchez) eligible under §1255 for adjustment to LPR status.” (Parentheses in original.)

Kagan further clarified the distinction, comparing the situations of a foreign exchange student who stays past the end of their education visa and someone who enters the country illegally but earns asylum status. 

“The latter is the situation Sanchez is in, except that he received a different kind of lawful status,” she wrote. “The TPS statute permits him to remain in the country; and it deems him in nonimmigrant status for purposes of applying to become an LPR. But the statute does not constructively ‘admit’ a TPS recipient—that is, ‘consider’ him as having entered the country ‘after inspection and authorization.’”

“And because a grant of TPS does not come with a ticket of admission, it does not eliminate the disqualifying effect of an unlawful entry,” she added.  

The court’s unanimous decision was praised by immigration hardliners including Christopher Hajec, director of litigation with the Immigration Reform Law Institute.

“Contrary to what the petitioners demanded, the court declined to water down the principle that illegal aliens, never having been admitted, cannot adjust to lawful permanent residency,” Hajec said in an email. “The law gave the justices no choice, and we are glad they saw that.”

Meanwhile, Jaime Winthuysen Aparisi, the attorney for Gonzalez and Sanchez, expressed his disappointment in the ruling. 

“TPS recipients like them have been living and working lawfully here for 20 years,” he said of the designation covering about 400,000 people from 12 countries. “We ask that anyone who feels this is an unjust result reach out to their congressperson or senator to support the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021.”

The bill the attorney referred to, which aims to remove barriers to citizenship for certain qualifying immigrants, was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in March but has since stalled in the Senate.

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