The Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision on May 16 rejecting federal court review of fact-finding done by immigration courts. The Court’s reasoning could have wide-ranging impacts on many more types of immigration relief.
The case—Patel v. Garland—centers around Pankajkumar Patel, a native of India, who erroneously checked a box on a Georgia drivers’ license application labeled “U.S. citizen.” Checking the box made no difference at that moment, as he was eligible for a drivers’ license even without being a citizen. That mistake haunted him when he went to apply for adjustment of status after living and working in the United States for 15 years.
The immigration court found Patel ineligible for relief because the government claimed Patel misrepresented that he was a U.S. citizen when he inadvertently checked the relevant box on an application for a Georgia drivers’ license. His attorneys argued that all questions as to the eligibility for relief should be reviewable because the immigration statute only prohibits review of the ultimate discretionary decision to grant relief.
But Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the majority, found that the immigration statute bars federal courts from reviewing questions about a person’s eligibility to adjust their status. In this case, there was a factual dispute about whether Patel intentionally marked “U.S. citizen” on his drivers’ license application to benefit from that error.
“Federal courts have a very limited role to play in this process,” Barrett wrote. “With an exception for legal and constitutional questions, Congress has barred judicial review of the Attorney General’s decisions denying discretionary relief from removal.”
The majority’s conclusion stems from the interpretation of the phrase “regarding relief from removal,” interpreting “regarding” broadly to sweep any and all determinations related to relief from removal, including whether someone is eligible under the statute.
Immigration court proceedings generally have two stages: a removal stage and a relief stage. First, the court must determine if the immigrant is removable. A person cannot ask for relief until the court makes that determination. At the relief stage, a court must answer two questions: first, whether the noncitizen is eligible for relief; and second, whether the court should grant that relief in its discretion.
In an exasperated dissent, Justice Gorsuch, joined by the Court’s three liberal justices, construed the text of the judicial review statute, its context within and among other immigration laws, and Congress’s legislative history to conclude that the majority was wrong. Congress never intended to bar judicial review of questions of eligibility for relief; it only intended to bar review of the ultimate decision to grant or deny relief.
“Today’s interpretation seeks to cram a veritable legislative zoo into one clause of one subparagraph of one subsection of our Nation’s vast immigration laws,” wrote Gorsuch.
And obvious factual errors are bound to be made—with a case backlog of nearly 1.8 million cases and an over-stressed and under-staffed court system, it is no surprise that immigration judges make mistakes.
In the same week the Court removed an important back-stop for factual errors by the immigration court through this decision, Congress is considering an overhaul of the immigration court system. Immigration courts would be taken out of the Department of Justice and creating an independent, Article I court.
The Patel decision also leaves open questions about the scope of the decision. Following the majority’s logic, federal courts may no longer be able to review denial of adjustment of status applications denied by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in which the immigration agency also makes factual determinations about eligibility for relief. This will likely be the next wave of litigation on this judicial review provision.
But as it is, the Patel decision stands to affect thousands of people each year who try to adjust their status in removal proceedings in a tortured reading of the statute from the Supreme Court.
“Today, the Court holds that a federal bureaucracy can make an obvious factual error, one that will result in an individual’s removal from this country, and nothing can be done about it,” wrote Gorsuch.