Scialabba v. de Osorio,
573 U.S. ___ (2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Qualifying U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) may petition for family members to obtain immigrant visas. A sponsored individual (principal beneficiary) is placed into a “family preference” category based on relationship to the petitioner, 8 U.S.C. 1153(a)(1)–(4). The principal beneficiary’s spouse and minor children qualify as derivative beneficiaries, entitled to the same status and order of consideration as the principal. Beneficiaries become eligible to apply for visas in order of priority date, the date a petition was filed. Because the process often takes years, a child may age out and lose status before she obtains a visa. The Child Status Protection Act (CSPA) provides that if the age of an alien is determined to be 21 years or older, notwithstanding allowances for bureaucratic delay, the petition “shall automatically be converted to the appropriate category and the alien shall retain the original priority date issued upon receipt of the original petition.” In this case, principal beneficiaries who became LPRs, filed petitions for their aged-out children (who did not have a qualifying relationship with the original sponsor), asserting that the newly filed petitions should receive the same priority date as their original petitions. U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) disagreed. The district court granted the government summary judgment, deferring to the Board of Immigration Appeals’ (BIA’s) determination under section 1153(h)(3). The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the provision entitled all aged-out derivative beneficiaries to automatic conversion and priority date retention. The Supreme Court reversed, reasoning that each immigrant must have a qualified and willing sponsor. If an original sponsor does not have a legally recognized relationship with the aged-out children, another sponsor must be identified for the alien to qualify for a new family preference category. Immigration officials do not know whether a valid sponsor exists unless the aged-out beneficiary files and USCIS approves a new petition. Section 1153(h)(3) does not require a new petition for derivative beneficiaries who had a qualifying relationship with an LPR both before and after they aged out. In contrast, the nieces, nephews, and grandchildren of the initial sponsors cannot qualify for “automatic conversion.” The BIA’s interpretation benefits from administrative simplicity and fits with immigration law’s basic first-come, first-served rule.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

SCIALABBA, ACTING DIRECTOR, UNITED STATES CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION SERVICES, et al. v. CUELLAR de OSORIO et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 12–930. Argued December 10, 2013—Decided June 9, 2014

The Immigration and Nationality Act permits qualifying U. S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) to petition for certain family members to obtain immigrant visas. A sponsored individual, known as the principal beneficiary, is placed into a “family preference” category based on his relationship with the petitioner. 8 U. S. C. §§1153(a)(1)–(4). The principal beneficiary’s spouse and minor children in turn qualify as derivative beneficiaries, “entitled to the same status” and “order of consideration” as the principal. §1153(d). The beneficiaries then become eligible to apply for visas in order of “priority date”—that is, the date a petition was filed. §1153(e)(1). Because the immigration process often takes years or decades to complete, a child seeking to immigrate may “age out”—i.e., reach adulthood and lose her immigration status—before she reaches the front of the visa queue. The Child Status Protection Act (CSPA) sets forth a remedy in that circumstance, providing that “[i]f the age of an alien is determined . . . to be 21 years of age or older,” notwithstanding certain allowances for bureaucratic delay, §§1153(h)(1)–(2), “the alien’s petition shall automatically be converted to the appropriate category and the alien shall retain the original priority date issued upon receipt of the original petition.” §1153(h)(3).

          Respondents, principal beneficiaries who became LPRs, filed petitions for their aged-out children, asserting that the newly filed petitions should receive the same priority date as their original petitions. Instead, U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) gave the new petitions current priority dates. The District Court granted the Government summary judgment, deferring to the Board of Immigration Appeals’ (BIA’s) determination that only those petitions that can be seamlessly converted from one family preference category to another without the need for a new sponsor are entitled to conversion under §1153(h)(3). The en banc Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the provision unambiguously entitled all aged-out derivative beneficiaries to automatic conversion and priority date retention.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

695 F. 3d 1003, reversed and remanded.

     Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Kennedy and Justice Ginsburg, concluded that the BIA’s textually reasonable construction of §1153(h)(3)’s ambiguous language was entitled to deference. Pp. 13–33.

     (a) Because §1153(h)(3) does not speak unambiguously to the issue here, a court must defer to the BIA’s reasonable interpretation. See Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837 . The first clause of §1153(h)(3) states a condition that encompasses every aged-out beneficiary of a family preference petition. The second clause, however, does not easily cohere with the first. It prescribes a remedy that can apply to only a subset of the beneficiaries described in the first clause. This remedial prescription directs immigration officials to take the alien’s petition and convert it from a category benefitting a child to an appropriate category for adults, without any change in the petition, including its sponsor, or any new filing. Moreover, this conversion is to be “automati[c]”—that is, one involving no additional decisions, contingencies, or delays. Thus, the only aliens who may benefit from §1153(h)(3)’s back half are those for whom automatic conversion is possible.

     The understanding that “automatic conversion” entails nothing more than picking up the petition from one category and dropping it into another for which the alien now qualifies matches the exclusive way immigration law used the term when §1153(h)(3) was enacted. See 8 CFR §204.2(i)(1)–(3) (2002). And Congress used the word “conversion” in the identical way elsewhere in the CSPA. See, e.g., §§1151(f)(2), (3).

     If the term meant more than that in §1153(h)(3), it would undermine the family preference system’s core premise: that each immigrant must have a qualified and willing sponsor. See §§1154(a), (b). If an original sponsor does not have a legally recognized relationship with the aged-out derivative beneficiary, another sponsor, e.g., the old principal beneficiary, must be swapped in for the alien to qualify for a new family preference category. But immigration officials cannot assume that a new sponsor is eligible and willing to petition on the alien’s behalf, given the numerous requirements the law imposes on family preference petitioners. See, e.g., §1154(a)(1)(B)(i)(II). Nei-ther can they figure out whether a valid sponsor exists unless he files and USCIS approves a new petition—the very thing §1153(h)(3) says is not required.

     In any case, a new qualified sponsor will rarely exist at the requisite time. An alien is deemed to age out on “the date on which an immigrant visa number became available for the alien’s parent.” §1153(h)(1)(A). Since aging out triggers automatic conversion, the date of automatic conversion is best viewed as the same. But at that time, the aged-out beneficiary’s parent cannot yet be a citizen or LPR, and so no new, qualified sponsor will be ready to step into the old one’s shoes.

     On the above account, §1153(h)(3)’s second clause provides a remedy to those principal and derivative beneficiaries who had a qualifying relationship with an LPR both before and after they aged out. In contrast, aliens like respondents’ children—the nieces, nephews, and grandchildren of the initial sponsors—cannot qualify for “automatic conversion”: they lacked a qualifying preference relationship with the initial petitioner, and so cannot fit into a new preference category without obtaining a new sponsor.

     The ambiguity created by §1153(h)(3)’s ill-fitting clauses left the BIA to choose how to reconcile the statute’s different commands. It reasonably opted to abide by the inherent limits of §1153(h)(3)’s remedial clause, rather than go beyond those limits so as to match the sweep of the first clause’s condition. When an agency thus resolves statutory tension, ordinary principles of administrative deference require this Court to defer. See National Assn. of Home Builders v. Defenders of Wildlife, 551 U. S. 644 . Pp. 13–22.

     (b) Respondents take issue with the BIA’s interpretation, but none of their contentions is persuasive. Pp. 22–33.

          (1) Respondents aver that every aged-out beneficiary could be automatically converted if immigration officials substituted new sponsors and managed the timing of conversion so that a new sponsor existed on the relevant date. These administrative maneuvers are not in keeping with the natural and long-established meaning of “automatic conversion,” they require conversion to occur on a date that has no connection to the alien’s aging out, and they demand administrative juggling to make automatic conversion work. And that painstakingly managed process still cannot succeed because a derivative’s parent may never become able to sponsor a visa—and immigration officials cannot practicably tell whether a given parent has done so. Pp. 22–27.

          (2) Respondents argue that the word “and” in the second clause of §1153(h)(3) indicates that priority date retention is a benefit wholly independent of automatic conversion. But “and” does not necessarily disjoin two phrases, and context suggests that the instructions work in tandem. In other statutory and regulatory provisions respecting “conversions,” retention of a priority date is conditional on a conversion occurring. See, e.g., §§1154(k)(1)–(3). Respondent’s reading would make priority date retention conditional on something the statute nowhere mentions. And it would engender unusual results that, without some clearer statement, the Court cannot conclude that Congress intended. Pp. 27–30.

          (3) Finally, respondents contend that, assuming §1153(h)(3) is ambiguous, the BIA acted unreasonably in choosing the more restrictive reading. But the BIA’s interpretation benefits from administrative simplicity and fits with immigration law’s basic first-come, first-served rule. By contrast, respondents would scramble the priority order Congress established by allowing aged-out derivative beneficiaries, like respondents’ sons and daughters, to enter the visa queue ahead of beneficiaries who had a qualifying relationship with an LPR for a far longer time. Pp. 31–33.

     The Chief Justice, joined by Justice Scalia, agreed that the BIA’s interpretation was reasonable, but not because an agency has authority to resolve direct conflicts within a statute. There is no conflict or internal tension in §1153(h)(3). The first clause of the provision defines the persons potentially affected, but does not grant anything to anyone. The particular benefit provided by the statute—automatic conversion and retention of priority date—is found exclusively in the second clause, and that relief requires, at minimum, that an aged-out beneficiary have his own eligible sponsor who is committed to providing financial support for the beneficiary. Beyond that, Congress did not speak clearly to which petitions can be automatically converted. The BIA’s reasonable interpretation of §1153(h)(3) is consistent with the ordinary meaning of the statutory terms, with the established meaning of automatic conversion in immigration law, and with the structure of the family-based immigration system. Pp. 1–4.

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

Primary Holding

Because 8 U.S.C. § 1153(h)(3), a provision of the Child Status Protection Act, is ambiguous as to the meaning of “automatic conversion,” a court must defer to the Board of Immigration Appeals’ reasonable interpretation of that statute.

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