Supreme Court Suggests It Will Curb Green-Card Applications

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The U.S. Supreme Court suggested it was poised to block applications for permanent residency from thousands of immigrants who are living in the country under a program that gives them temporary legal status because their home nations are in crisis.

Hearing arguments by phone Monday, the justices indicated they would bar green-card applications from people who entered the country illegally and later secured Temporary Protected Status. Justice Brett Kavanaugh told a lawyer representing a Salvadoran couple she had an “uphill climb” in arguing that federal immigration law lets her clients seek permanent residency.

“We need to be careful about tinkering with the immigration statutes as written, particularly when Congress has such a primary role here,” Kavanaugh said. “Why should we jump in here, when Congress is very focused on immigration?”

The case is pitting immigration advocates against President Joe Biden’s administration, which is defending what it says is a 30-year government practice of rejecting applications from illegal entrants. Biden’s team inherited the case from former President Donald Trump’s administration, which formalized the policy.

Some of the court’s conservative justices wondered why the Biden team wasn’t being more forceful in its arguments. The new administration has stopped short of explicitly saying, as the Trump team did, that its position was “clearly” the best reading of the key statutory language.

The Biden administration instead says the court should defer to the government’s interpretation as a reasonable one, a position that might leave the government free to adopt a different approach later.

“I was struck by the extent to which your brief undersold your position,” Chief Justice John Roberts told a Justice Department lawyer.

TPS currently covers more than 400,000 people from about dozen countries. More than 250,000 are from El Salvador, who under federal law must have had continuous presence in the U.S. since 2001. TPS shields recipients from deportation and lets them hold jobs legally.

Salvadoran Couple

The case before the high court concerns Jose Sanchez and Sonia Gonzalez, a married Salvadoran couple who entered the U.S. illegally in the 1990s. They applied for and received TPS after El Salvador suffered a series of earthquakes in 2001.

In 2007, Sanchez got an employment visa through his employer, Viking Yacht Co., and seven years later he sought to use that visa to get what’s known as an “adjustment” to permanent status for himself and his wife. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services rejected the application in 2015, saying Sanchez was ineligible because he had “never been admitted into the United States.”

Federal law requires green card applicants to have been “inspected and admitted” into the country.

Sanchez and Gonzalez contend they met the “inspected and admitted” requirement by having being approved for the TPS program. They say the government’s stance would force them to return to El Salvador and apply for immigrant visas there before they could seek permanent status -- something they say Congress didn’t intend when it set up the TPS program in 1990.

The case is Sanchez v. Mayorkas, 20-315.

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