June 09, 2014

Supreme Court Decides Scialabba v. Cuellar de Osoroio et al.

On June 9, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 1153(h) of the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA), which automatically converts a minor alien's petition to immigrate as a derivative beneficiary to another appropriate category when the minor "ages out" during the immigration process, and which retains the alien's original filing date, applies only to those petitions that can transition "seamlessly" from one family preference category to another, i.e. not when a new sponsor is needed.

The respondents in this case were principal beneficiaries of a visa petition filed by a U.S. citizen parent or sibling, who had children that "aged out" during the immigration process. Respondents then immigrated to the United States without their children and filed new petitions for their now-adult children. They contended that the adult children should retain the priority date from the respondents' original petitions. The district court deferred to the Bureau of Immigration Appeals' (BIA) interpretation of the CSPA, which, in a prior case, had found the provision ambiguous and concluded that only those petitions that could transition automatically without need for a new sponsor were entitled to retain their priority dates. The Ninth Circuit reversed en banc in a 6-to-5 decision.

A plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, deferring to the agency's interpretation. The plurality concluded that Section 1153(h) of the CSPA was ambiguous. The first half of the provision looked "toward the sweeping relief the respondents propose" while the second half looked "toward a remedy that can apply only to a subset of those beneficiaries," and the two halves "do not easily cohere with each other." Because the interpretive tension in the statute allows for multiple reasonable interpretations, Chevron deference applied to the BIA's interpretation. The statute speaks in terms of "automatic" conversion, which the BIA reasonably interpreted to include only those situations in which the derivative beneficiary can move "seamlessly" into another family preference category. Where the beneficiary requires a new sponsor to qualify, the transition cannot be seamless. Concurring in the judgment, two justices agreed that the agency's interpretation of the statute was reasonable but disagreed that there was tension between the first and second clauses. The two concluded that only the second clause conferred benefits, and the agency's reasonable interpretation was consistent with the meaning of the second clause.

Justice Kagan announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg joined. Chief Justice Roberts filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Scalia joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined, and in which Justice Thomas joined, except as to footnote 3.

Download Opinion of the Court

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