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Supreme Court: Deportation Hearing Notices Can’t Arrive Incomplete

The justices said Thursday that proper notice of a non-resident’s removal hearing must be a single document — not two partially complete ones.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Thursday that a specific notice activated an immigration provision that prevents non-citizens from accruing a continuous residency in the United States.

Agusto Niz-Chavez is a Guatemalan national who arrived in the U.S. in 2005. Two of his children have serious health conditions. After he was pulled over for a broken tail light, Niz-Chavez was referred to immigration authorities, who sent him a notice in 2013 to appear in an immigration court. Two months later, he was sent a hearing notice.

Niz-Chavez applied for his removal to be cancelled, but his immigration judge ruled that the notice triggered the stop-time rule — a provision restricting access to that relief. Niz-Chavez hadn’t acquired the minimum of 10 years of continuous residency, the judge ruled, and the Sixth Circuit upheld that decision in 2019.

If undocumented immigrants demonstrate a continuous presence in the U.S. for at least 10 years, they may be eligible for relief at the discretion of immigration officials, the high court noted in its majority opinion. Niz-Chavez had lived in the United States for eight years when he was served the document at the heart of this dispute.

Justice Neil Gorsuch penned the court’s majority opinion, which focuses on granular statutory language — specifically the indefinite article “a” as it relates to the federal provision specifying the stop-time rule. The Department of Justice argued that single transactions are often delivered in parts, for example, “a” contract might comprise multiple documents delivered at different times. But Gorsuch said that language doesn’t work that way.

“To build on an illustration we used in Pereira, someone who agrees to buy ‘a car’ would hardly expect to receive the chassis today, wheels next week, and an engine to follow,” Gorsuch wrote. “At best, then, all of the competing examples the government and dissent supply do no more than demonstrate context matters.”

Gorsuch clarified that the court’s decision is based in no part in speculation about how the ruling might affect costs to the government. Interpreting the phrase “a notice to appear,” which appears in the statute in question, as requiring only a single notice rather than two or 20 documents, Gorsuch explained, helps the court apply ordinary meaning to law and statutory language.

“At one level, today’s dispute may seem semantic, focused on a single word, a small one at that,” Gorsuch wrote. “But words are how the law constrains power. In this case, the law’s terms ensure that, when the federal government seeks a procedural advantage against an individual, it will at least supply him with a single and reasonably comprehensive statement of the nature of the proceedings against him.”

Joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Brett Kavanaugh penned a dissenting opinion. Kavanaugh argued that it is implausible Congress meant to require only a single document to serve as a notice to appear.

“If Congress wanted to require a single document in order to stop the 10-year clock, it is hard to imagine a more obscure way of doing so,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Although ‘the meaning of a statute will typically heed the commands of its punctuation,’ ‘a purported plain-meaning analysis based only on punctuation is necessarily incomplete and runs the risk of distorting a statute’s true meaning.’”

David Zimmer, a Goodwin Proctor attorney representing Niz-Chavez, told Courthouse News in a Thursday interview that the high court’s ruling could allow for many thousands of non-citizens to apply to remain in the country with their families. He said it also requires the federal government to follow the rules when it wants to initiate removal proceedings.

What’s more, Zimmer said, Niz-Chavez can finally focus on what brought him to the U.S. in the first place: his children.

“He’ll be able to go back to the immigration court and apply for a cancellation of removal and make his case for why he should be able to stay here with his young, U.S. citizen kids, who have known no other country but ours,” Zimmer said. “It’s certainly wonderful news for him.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The high court agreed to hear the case last June. The justices previously considered a similar issue, of “barebones” deportation notices, in 2018.

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