Court Denies Access to Green Card for Couple Who Entered Country Illegally
In a rare unanimous decision on the volatile issue of immigration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in early June, in the case of Sanchez v. Mayorkas, that persons with temporary protected status (TPS) do not have the right to become lawful permanent residents if they originally entered the United States illegally. Legal experts generally consider it a significant setback for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants currently in the United States under TPS, as well as those who remain here under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The Court held that although the Executive Branch has limited power to grant temporary status to illegal immigrants, Congress has the exclusive authority to address permanent residency.
The Facts of the Case
In 1997 and 1998, husband and wife Jose Sanchez and Sonia Gonzalez left their home country of El Salvador and entered the United States. They both admit that they did not enter the country legally and that they were never subjected to any immigration inspection or process. The couple settled in New Jersey. In 2001, they sought temporary protection from deportation under the TPS program, created by Congress as a part of the Immigration Act of 1990. The TPS program was instituted to provide temporary protection for foreign nationals in the United States who would be exposed to either armed conflict or environmental devastation if forced to return to their native countries. At the time, El Salvador was reeling from a series of earthquakes. The request for TPS was granted.
Sanchez and Gonzalez have remained under temporary protected status since 2001. Sanchez’s employer subsequently filed an immigration visa application for him as a skilled worker, and the petition was approved, authorizing him to become a lawful permanent resident. Gonzalez was then approved for lawful permanent residency as well.
In 2014, Sanchez and Gonzalez applied to adjust their status, so they could apply for a green card and obtain permanent legal status. Citing the fact that they had entered the country illegally in the 1990s, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services denied their request. Sanchez and Gonzalez filed legal action in federal district court and obtained a favorable ruling, but the government appealed and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the lower court decision.
The Legal Issues Involved
The Supreme Court addressed and resolved two potentially contradictory provisions of American immigration law. The language of the Immigration Act of 1990, when conferring TPS on immigrants, states that anyone with TPS should be deemed as “maintaining lawful status.” Attorneys for Sanchez and Gonzalez argued that such language implies that anyone granted TPS is inherently or automatically considered to be legally in the country. The United States government, and ultimately the Supreme Court, disagreed
The US Solicitor General contended that mere admission into the United States did not confer legal status. He also argued that Congress was clear in its intent that TPS not be “a special pathway to permanent residency for non-citizens who were already barred from the privilege because of pre-TPS conduct.”
Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan ruled that TPS does not make an illegal immigrant eligible for a green card. Because Sanchez and Gonzalez were not lawfully admitted to the United States, they lack the legal status to become lawful permanent residents based on the fact that American immigration laws “require a lawful admission before a person can obtain lawful permanent residency status.” The opinion of the Court concludes, “Sanchez was not lawfully admitted, and his TPS does not alter that fact. Therefore, he cannot become a permanent resident of this country.”
Immigration experts note that the ruling doesn’t mean Sanchez can never become a lawful permanent resident. Sanchez had hoped that he could obtain his already-approved green card without having to leave the United States and reenter as a lawful permanent resident. He can still do that, but immigration experts say that’s a far more cumbersome, complicated, and dangerous path to permanent residency.