May 21, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Holder v. Gutierrez and Holder v. Sawyers

On May 21, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Holder v. Gutierrez (No. 10-1542) and Holder v. Sawyers (No. 10-1543), holding that the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reasonably concluded that an alien must independently meet the statutory requirements codified at 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(a) to be eligible to obtain relief from the Attorney General from being deported out of the United States and may not impute the time during which his/her parent lawfully resided in the United States.   

After committing deportable offenses, respondents Carlos Martinez Gutierrez and Damien Sawyers both sought relief under § 1229b(a), which provides that the Attorney General may cancel the removal of an alien who is inadmissible or deportable from the United States if the alien has been an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence for not less than 5 years, has resided in the United States continuously for 7 years after having been admitted in any status, and has not been convicted of any aggravated felony. Gutierrez and Sawyers argued that, in determining whether they met the statutory criteria under § 1229b(a), the BIA should impute their parents' years of continuous residence and lawful permanent residence status to them during the time that they had lived with their parents as unemancipated minors. The BIA refused, reaffirming its position rejecting such imputation under § 1229b(a). The Ninth Circuit reversed, referring the BIA to the Court's earlier opinion in Mercado-Zazueta v. Holder, 580 F.3d 1102 (2009), in which it declared the BIA's position unreasonable and required imputation under § 1229b(a). 

Granting certiorari to resolve a circuit split and consolidating Gutierrez's and Sawyers's cases, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Applying Chevron deference to the BIA's administrative interpretation of the immigration statute, the Supreme Court determined that the BIA's requirement that each alien resident seeking cancellation of removal individually satisfy § 1229b(a)'s criteria was a reasonable construction of the statute, regardless of whether it was the only possible interpretation or even the interpretation a court might think best. Specifically, the Court determined that the Board's interpretation was consistent with the statute's text, which does not mention or require imputation. 

The Court also rejected the respondents' argument that § 1229b(a)'s history and context demanded imputation. The respondents relied on the statute's predecessor, § 212(c), which allowed the Attorney General to prevent the removal of an alien who had maintained a lawful unrelinquished domicile of seven consecutive years in the country. Because circuit courts had interpreted this former statute as requiring imputation because a minor's domicile was "the same as that of its parents," the respondents argued that Congress ratified an imputation requirement when it passed § 1229b(a). However, the Court noted that Congress had eliminated the term "domicile" in the new codification, and that the doctrine of congressional ratification was therefore inapplicable. 

The Court also rejected the respondents' argument that the INA's purposes of "providing relief to aliens with strong ties to the United States" and "promoting family unity" demanded imputation due to the INA's other competing goals. Lastly, the Court explained the BIA's inconsistency in allowing imputation under other statutes by stating that the Board "imputes matters involving an alien's state of mind, while declining to impute objective conditions or characteristics." Because the time limitations under § 1229b(a) do not "hinge on any state of mind but on the objective facts of immigration status and place of residence," imputation was not required under the distinction that the BIA has drawn in its rulings on imputation. 

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Download Opinion of the Court

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