The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal courts cannot revise immigration judges' decisions in some deportation cases, even when the government made what Justice Neil Gorsuch called "egregious factual mistakes."
The court ruled against a Georgia man, Pankajkumar Patel, who has lived in the United States for 30 years and faces deportation because he checked the wrong box on a driver's license application stating he was a U.S. citizen.
In a 5-4 vote, the majority interpreted the law at issue as limiting courts from considering relief and leaving it up to the discretion of immigration officials to apply in factual dispute cases as to whether someone is eligible for that discretionary relief in removal cases.
"Today's decision lets immigration officials make discretionary decisions based on totally mistaken assumptions about the immigrant. The official might know they're false, or it might be based on an honest mistake. But either way, our courts exist to correct such mistakes and allow all people to be treated fairly," Paul Gordon, legislative counsel at the People for the American Way, told VOA.
Per court documents, in 2007, Patel and his wife, Jyotsnaben, sent an application to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to change their immigration status under the discretionary adjustment of status code, which would have made Patel and his wife lawful permanent residents.
USCIS was aware that Patel had previously checked a box on a driver's license application falsely stating that he was a U.S. citizen while his petition to adjust status was pending.
It then denied Patel's application, saying he failed to satisfy the requirements to be legally admissible for permanent residence. He was charged with making a false statement, but the charges were later dropped.
According to filings in the case, Patel said he checked the box by mistake in his license renewal application. His lawyers argued that U.S. officials could not conclude Patel had misrepresented himself as a citizen on purpose as Georgia does not require a resident to be a U.S. citizen to receive a driver's license.
Yet, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security placed him and his wife in removal proceedings.
Today's ruling was authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who said although the U.S. attorney general can allow protection from deportation, people have to first be eligible. And, per previous decisions in Patel's case, he was ineligible.
"Federal courts have a very limited role to play in this process," Barrett wrote, adding immigration law "precludes judicial review of factual findings that underlie a denial of relief."
But Justice Neil Gorsuch parted ways with his conservative colleagues to join three liberal justices in dissent.
He said Monday's decision will act as a shield to protect the government from the "embarrassment" of having to correct even obvious errors.
"It is no secret that when processing applications, licenses, and permits the government sometimes makes mistakes. Often, they are small ones - a misspelled name, a misplaced application. ... Our case is such a case. An immigrant to this country applied for legal residency," he wrote.
The government rejected his application, allegedly, based on a glaring factual error, per Gorsuch.
"In circumstances like that, our law has long permitted individuals to petition a court to consider the question and correct any mistake. Not anymore. ... As a result, no court may correct even the agency's most egregious factual mistakes about an individual's statutory eligibility for relief," Gorsuch added.
Patel and his wife, Jyotsnaben, entered the U.S. illegally about 30 years ago after leaving India. He applied for an adjustment of status with the support of his employer. The couple have three adult sons.
The Supreme Court ruling means Patel is not able to challenge the possible deportation in court.
"Today's decision finds a loophole that will likely harm a lot of people. Immigration officials will have less incentive to get their facts right when they know there won't be a judge checking their work," Gordon added.