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Supreme Court Rules for Immigrant in Case on Deportation Hardship Waiver

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Supreme Court Rules for Immigrant in Case on Deportation Hardship Waiver

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The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that federal appeals courts may review many determinations by immigration judges about whether deporting someone would, in the words of a federal statute, result in “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to a relative who is lawfully in the United States.

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

The case concerned Situ Kamu Wilkinson, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago. In 2003, fleeing violence, he overstayed a tourist visa in the United States. About a decade later, he and his girlfriend had a son, an American citizen referred to in court papers as M.

After he was detained by the authorities in 2019, Mr. Wilkinson sought to avoid deportation under a provision of a federal statute that allows immigration judges to grant relief to people whose removal would cause great hardship to a spouse, parent or child. (Mr. Wilkinson satisfied the law’s other criteria: to have been present in the United States for at least 10 continuous years, to have good moral character and to have not been convicted of certain crimes.)

An immigration judge found that M. had severe asthma and that Mr. Wilkinson provided financial and emotional support for him. The judge also determined that M. had been struggling with behavioral problems since Mr. Wilkinson’s detention, when the boy was 7.

But the judge ruled that those circumstances did not amount to the kind of hardship that would warrant an exception to the usual rules. The Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed that ruling.

Mr. Wilkinson sought review in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which ruled that it lacked jurisdiction under a 1996 law that stripped federal appeals courts of much of their authority over rulings on deportations.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for five justices, said that an amendment to the law did allow appeals courts to review “questions of law.” She wrote that the immigration judge’s application of the statutory standard to the facts concerning M. satisfied that requirement.

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

Pure factual issues are another matter, she wrote. “For instance,” she wrote, an immigration judge’s findings “on credibility, the seriousness of a family member’s medical condition or the level of financial support a noncitizen currently provides remain unreviewable. Only the question whether those established facts satisfy the statutory eligibility standard is subject to judicial review.”

Justices Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined Justice Sotomayor’s opinion in the case, 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 the immigration laws by treating nearly all questions as legal ones that may be reviewed by appeals courts.

Such a reading of the immigration laws, he wrote, “would be the equivalent of a City Council adopting an ordinance banning all dogs from a park with an exception for all dogs that weigh under 125 pounds. Or the council passes an ordinance prohibiting all persons from riding a bicycle without a helmet but then adopts an exception for all persons under the age of 90.”

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