Law & the Courts

Supreme Court Rules Illegal Immigrants Cannot Apply for Green Card Despite Being Granted Temporary Protected Status

A woman walks past the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., May 17, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that recipients of temporary protected status (TPS) who entered the U.S. illegally are not eligible to apply for a green card to remain in the U.S. permanently.

The ruling would apply to some of the 400,000 immigrants who have been granted TPS, allowing them to stay in the U.S. because of unsafe conditions or crises in their native countries. 

However, in order to acquire lawful permanent resident status an individual must have been “inspected and admitted or paroled into the United States.”

While Jose Santos Sanchez, who entered the country illegally in 1997, argued in Sanchez v. Mayorkas that having been granted TPS in 2001 meant he met the requirement, Justice Elena Kagan said on behalf of the Court that the law was clear that it did not.  

“Sanchez was not lawfully admitted, and his TPS does not alter that fact,” she wrote. “He therefore cannot become a permanent resident of this country.”

The suit, brought by Sanchez and his wife Sonia Gonzalez, was initially filed under the Trump administration. The case left the Biden administration in opposition to its usual allies on immigration.

Natives of El Salvador, Sanchez and Gonzalez illegally entered the U.S. in 1997 and 1998 respectively and later received temporary protected status in 2001 due to conditions in their native country; El Salvado is one of 12 countries from which citizens are eligible for TPS.

The couple, who have lived in New Jersey for more than 20 years, were denied when they applied for a green card, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services arguing they had not been “admitted” to the country.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed with the immigration service’s decision.

While Sanchez’s attorneys argued that was a constrained reading of the law, Kagan said it is not for the court to decide that what the law does “is not enough.” Congress would have to change the law to help people like Sanchez, she said, adding that “legislation pending in Congress would do just that.”

However, she added that the law does not disclude everyone with TPS from seeking permanent lawful status. While those who entered the country illegally do not qualify, a foreign national who entered the country legally on a tourist visa but stayed after its expiration would meet the requirement for lawful entry.

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