The Supreme Court's Latest Immigration Ruling Turned on the Word 'A'

Gorsuch, Thomas, Barrett join liberal justices in victory for illegal immigrant

Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh / Getty Images
April 29, 2021

The word "a" drove Thursday's decision in a Supreme Court case on immigration.

The case required the justices to interpret a provision of immigration law that says the clock to a 10-year safe harbor from deportation stops "when the alien is served a notice to appear." Writing for an ideologically mixed majority of six, Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with a Guatemalan immigrant and said the summons must be delivered via "a" single form, not staggered over multiple deliveries as sometimes occurs.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Amy Coney Barrett joined Gorsuch's opinion.

The immigrant in Thursday's case, Agusto Niz-Chavez, is a Guatemalan national who left his home after a violent property dispute with neighboring villagers. He crossed the U.S. border illegally in 2005 and eventually settled in Detroit. Eight years later, the government started the process for deporting Niz-Chavez. An immigration judge gave him 30 days to return to Guatemala on his own before being deported.

Illegal aliens can avoid deportation if they've been in the United States for 10 consecutive years, but the government can stop that 10-year clock by sending the migrant a summons to immigration court.

The government sent Niz-Chavez two documents over two months. The first, sent in March 2013, told him he had to appear in immigration court. The second, sent in May 2013, told him when and where his hearing would take place.

Lawyers for Niz-Chavez said those notices didn't stop the clock for the 10-year safe harbor. The government can't stagger the information over multiple forms sent separately, they argued. All relevant information, such as the date of the hearing and the grounds for removal, must be delivered together in one form. "A notice," they argued, means just one.

Writing for the Court Thursday, Gorsuch said Niz-Chavez was right.

"'A' notice would seem to suggest just that: 'a' single document containing the required information, not a mishmash of pieces with some assembly required," Gorsuch wrote.

"Today's dispute may seem semantic, focused on a single word, a small one at that," Gorsuch added. "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."

Because Niz-Chavez never received a proper stop-the-clock notice, he will get another chance to fight his removal.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh dissented, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Kavanaugh said the law at issue sets out the information the notice must contain but never expressly says that information must be relayed in a single document. He also argued that the word "a" can refer to an item delivered over multiple installments, such as an author who sends a manuscript chapter-by-chapter or a job seeker who completes an application first by sending a résumé and then sending references. Kavanaugh said Gorsuch's approach was too "literal," reprising a debate the pair had in a landmark 2020 decision on LGBT workplace rights.

Backing the Justice Department in October, the Immigration Reform Law Institute said a victory for Niz-Chavez would be a "pointless boondoggle" that helps migrants fight deportations with a hyper-technicality.

The case is No. 19-863 Niz-Chavez v. Garland.

Niz-Chavez v. Garland decision by Washington Free Beacon