The Supreme Court opened a door Thursday that could let thousands of noncitizens avoid deportation, ruling 6-3 that federal agencies failed to properly notify individuals about the time and place of removal proceedings, reports The Wall Street Journal. The case marked the second time in three years the court found the government failed to follow deportation procedures set forth in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The law states that the government must serve “a notice to appear” with essential details on individuals it seeks to deport, the nature of the proceedings against the undocumented individual, the legal authority for the proceedings, the charges against him, the fact that he may be represented by counsel, the time and place at which the proceedings will be held, and the consequences of failing to appear.
Noncitizens with clean records who demonstrate continued presence for a specified period, typically 10 years, can qualify to remain in the U.S. if deportation would cause hardship to their children or other relatives who are American citizens or lawful residents. Under the 1996 law, that clock stops running after a notice to appear is served—a change intended to prevent noncitizens from delaying their proceedings in hope of getting over the 10-year line. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the clock didn’t stop until the noncitizen was notified of the time and place of the hearing. Thursday’s decision took the next step, holding that the pertinent information must be contained in a single notice, rather than sent piecemeal. That conclusion rested on defining an irreducibly short word: the indefinite article “a.” Although hinging on a tiny word, the case carries significance for thousands of noncitizens who were called to removal proceedings before meeting the 10-year threshold, but who since have passed it.