Just a few months ago, Lucio Pérez left the western Massachusetts church where he had lived for more than three years to avoid deportation.
The immigration authorities granted in March a temporary suspension of his expulsion process while the Guatemalan, 40, asks that his case be reconsidered.
Now Pérez hopes that a recent Supreme Court ruling will help him clear that last hurdle and get official permission to stay in the country he has called home for more than two decades.
“Right now I feel very optimistic that everything is on the right track”, he said recently from his home in Springfield, Massachusetts. “I no longer have that fear of deportation. Now I feel safer”.
Pérez is one of dozens of immigrants who are confident that their deportation will be canceled because court appointments were not properly notified.
The Supreme Court concluded in April in the case Niz-Chavez v. Garland that the federal government must provide in a single notification all the information required to the immigrants facing expulsion proceedings.
For years the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has informed immigrants of their deportation proceedings in two parts: an initial notice to appear in court and subsequent notifications with the date, time and place of the hearing.
But Judge Neil Gorsuch, in his majority opinion, criticized that strategy of dividing the information and affirmed that it is not protected by federal laws.
The key, he argued, is in the shortest word: a 1996 immigration law indicates that the government must serve “a” notice for the subpoena, which implies that Congress intended that people at risk of deportation receive a single document.
“To some extent, today’s dispute may seem semantic, focused on a single word, and a small one in addition,” said Gorsuch, a conservative judge appointed by former Republican President Donald Trump. “But words are the way the law limits power.”
Activists and immigration lawyers, who had complained for years about the notification process, say the ruling has implications in dozens of cases.
“It’s a bombshell”, said Jeremy McKinney, a North Carolina attorney who is president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It is the second time in less than three years that the court has had to remind the Government that a summons to appear has to summon a person to appear at a time and place.”
The high court, he noted, has already offered a similar ruling on the matter in the Pereira v. Sessions case, although that 2018 decision had a somewhat more limited scope.
Activists claim that the current ICE process causes too many immigrants to miss their court hearings, since months can pass between the first summons and the following ones. Some, they say, do not even find out until years later that they had a hearing on their deportation and a judge ordered their removal from the country.
It could take months to see the real impact of the decision in the Niz-Chavez case, but McKinney and other experts believe it will undoubtedly add more cases to an already overburdened immigration court system.
As minimum, the decision revives cases in which immigrants were not adequately informedThey never showed up for their hearings and were finally ordered to leave the country, he said.
It is also likely to benefit anyone who receives a deportation notice in the future without the pertinent details.
In places like Cleveland, Ohio, and Arlington, Virginia, immigration judges already grant petitions to dismiss deportation proceedings if an immigrant received a notice without a date, time or location for the preliminary hearing, according to immigration attorneys.
Matt Benson, a Cincinnati-based attorney, estimated that his firm alone has filed more than two dozen similar petitions, with the judges accepting the vast majority.
“The court is being flooded with these petitions,” He said. “Now this is an important recourse to avoid a removal order against a client.”
ICE, which has argued before the Supreme Court that its notification process is sufficient, said Friday that it provides the required information in a single notice since January 2019.
He also mentioned an internal June statement in which he indicated that ICE attorneys “will exercise their prosecution discretion” when deciding whether to present allegations against immigrants who try to reopen their cases after the Supreme Court ruling.
Meanwhile, Augusto Niz-Chavez, the 30-year-old Guatemalan who was starring in the high court case, said he is waiting for his case to return to immigration court in Detroit.
He says he is eager to solve it. His wife was deported to Guatemala last year and he is raising the couple’s three children in Detroit while trying to balance his job at a local pallet factory.
“My priority now is to stay with my children,” she said recently in a videoconference interview. “If I can get legal permanent residence in the future, I would be interested in finding a legal way for my wife to return to the United States.”
In Massachusetts, Perez, who has four children, hopes to achieve a similar result in court.
He came to the country illegally at the age of 17, in 1999. In 2011, he received a summons for a hearing in immigration court that did not include the date or day, explained his attorney, Glenn Formica.
“This is all Lucio needs to get a second chance in his case”, he said.
For now, Perez is returning to the life he put on hold for the past three years while at First Congregation Church in Amherst, with support from the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and hundreds of volunteers the group helped coordinate.
After a long experience as a gardener, he would like to open a store to sell Guatemalan food and clothing if he gets permanent residency.
“Before, I felt like a caged bird,” Perez said. “Now I am out of the cage and back to my life. I can leave the house, go to the store, go to work. I’m very grateful for that”.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.