The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a Guatemalan transgender woman who is trying to avoid deportation from the U.S., after a lower court said she didn’t go through the proper process to demonstrate she would be persecuted if she returned to her home country.
Plaintiff Leon Santos-Zacaria, who now goes by the name Estrella, claims she was raped and received death threats because of her gender identity and sexual orientation in her native Guatemala.
Santos-Zacaria earned favor from all nine justices who said that she did not have to exhaust all the administrative remedies available under the Immigration and Nationality Act in order for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to have the jurisdiction to hear her appeal.
Santos-Zacaria allegedly fled to the United States and sought to remain permanently under a statute that offers protection to immigrants if they can prove they are or will be persecuted in their native country because of “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”
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An immigration judge found Santos-Zacaria’s claims “credible,” but court documents say the judge “inexplicably ruled that she did not suffer past persecution, and thus was not entitled to a presumption of future persecution.”
Santos-Zacaria appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeal (BIA), which disagreed with the judge’s ruling on past persecution but still denied her appeal and determined that she “had not shown she would be persecuted in the future.”
Santos-Zacaria appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which denied her claim because she did not follow a U.S. statute that says she needed to exhaust all remedies with the BIA, and that she should have filed what’s known as a “motion to reconsider” with the BIA.
The Justice Department took a position against Santos-Zacaria, saying that even after making claims about persecution, she had testified she was open to voluntarily returning to Guatamala on three separate occasions since leaving as a teenager, undermining her arguments about possible persecution.
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“She specifically acknowledged that she could now register herself ‘as a woman’ in Guatemala “if [she] want[s] to be a woman now legally,’ the DOJ brief stated.
DOJ’s brief also said the Fifth Circuit judge observed that Santos-Zacaria “‘agreed that there was probably a place where she could safely relocate within Guatemala,’ a concession that was sufficient to rebut the presumption that petitioner’s life or freedom would be threatened if she returned there.”
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DOJ argued that Santos-Zacaria did not raise her claims through the proper channel with the BIA, and that the Supreme Court should uphold the Fifth Circuit’s decision.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, said that DOJ’s position “presents a world of administrability headaches for courts, traps for unwary noncitizens, and mountains of reconsideration requests for the Board (filed out of an abundance of caution by noncitizens unsure of the need to seek reconsideration).”
“For the reasons discussed, we are confident that Congress did not adopt such a scheme,” the opinion stated.
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The high court vacated the Fifth Circuit opinion and remanded the case back down for further review.