Supreme Court ruling sends ‘aged-out’ visa applicants to back of line

A splintered Supreme Court upheld a narrow reading of federal immigration law on Monday, finding that children who hit the age of 21 before receiving a visa would have to return to the bottom of the wait list.

In a convoluted 5-4 split, the court found that only “principal beneficiaries” of visa petitions — generally those whose parents applied for them — can be allowed to keep their place in line after reaching the age of 21 under the Child Status Protection Act. 

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Only some of the foreign family visa applicants who “aged out” of the process while waiting for their papers are eligible for relief under federal immigration law, the court held.

The finding sides with the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals’s narrow view of the statute, which was challenged by plaintiffs who argued that the same relief should apply to those considered “derivative beneficiaries,” such as grandchildren, nieces or nephews. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan argued that the government’s reading of an unclear law was reasonable. 

“Confronted with a self-contradictory, ambiguous provision in a complex statutory scheme, the Board chose a textually reasonable construction consonant with its view of the purposes and policies underlying immigration law,” she wrote. 

“Were we to overturn the Board in that circumstance, we would assume as our own the responsible and expert agency’s role,” Kagan continued. “We decline that path, and defer to the Board.” 

During arguments, the government’s attorney argued that a broader interpretation of the law allowing relief for all aged-out applicants would wreak havoc on the legal immigration system, though it is unclear how many immigrants would be eligible. 

Kagan was joined in the decision by justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Chief Justice John Roberts concurred in the judgment, though he arrived at it in a different manner and wrote his own opinion, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia. 

Two separate dissents were filed: one by Justice Samuel Alito and another by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas joined in the latter dissent, though Thomas found fault with one footnote in the opinion.