Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Immigrants in Deportation Hardship Waiver Case

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that federal appeals courts can review many decisions by immigration judges about whether deporting a person would cause, in the words of a federal law, “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” for a parent who is legally in the United States.

The vote was 6-3, and the majority consisted of an unusual coalition: the court's three liberal members and the three justices appointed by President Donald J. Trump.

The case concerned Situ Kamu Wilkinson, born in Trinidad and Tobago. In 2003, fleeing violence, he extended the duration of his tourist visa in the United States. About a decade later, he and his girlfriend had a son, a U.S. citizen referred to in court documents as Mr.

After being arrested by authorities in 2019, Mr. Wilkinson sought to avoid deportation under a provision of a federal law that allows immigration judges to grant relief to people whose deportation would cause great hardship to a spouse, parent or child. (Mr. Wilkinson met the law's other criteria: having been present in the United States for at least 10 consecutive years, being of good moral character, and not having been convicted of certain crimes.)

An immigration judge found that Mr. suffered from severe asthma and that Mr. Wilkinson provided him with financial and emotional support. The judge also determined that M. had suffered from behavioral problems since Mr. Wilkinson's detention, when the boy was 7 years old.

But the judge ruled that those circumstances did not constitute the kind of hardship that would warrant an exception to the usual rules. The Immigration Appeals Board upheld this decision.

Mr. Wilkinson sought review from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which ruled that it lacked jurisdiction under a 1996 law that deprived federal appeals courts of much of their authority over decisions regarding expulsions.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing on behalf of five justices, said an amendment to the law allowed appeals courts to consider “questions of law.” She wrote that the immigration judge's application of the legal standard to the facts about M. satisfied that requirement.

“Mixed questions of law and fact, even when essentially factual, fall within the statutory definition of ‘questions of law,’” Justice Sotomayor wrote, allowing appellate review.

Purely factual questions are another matter, she wrote. “For example,” she wrote, an immigration judge’s findings “on the credibility, seriousness of a family member’s medical condition, or the level of financial support that a non-citizen currently provides remain unreviewable. Only the question of whether these established facts satisfy the statutory eligibility criteria is subject to judicial review.

Justices Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett joined Justice Sotomayor's opinion in Wilkinson v. Garland, No. 22-666. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson voted with the majority but did not adopt its reasoning.

In dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the majority had defied immigration laws by treating almost all issues as legal questions that could be reviewed by appeals courts.

Such a reading of the immigration laws, he writes, “would be tantamount to a city council passing an ordinance prohibiting all dogs from entering a park, with an exception for all dogs weighing less than 125 pounds . Either the council passes an ordinance prohibiting anyone from riding a bicycle without a helmet, but then adopts an exception for everyone under the age of 90.

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