immigration /

Supreme Court Rules Transgender-Identifying Asylum Seeker Can Fight Deportation

'The government urged a result that would have created administrative traps for unsophisticated and under-resourced litigants in immigration proceedings,' said a lawyer for Estrella Santos-Zacaria

The United States Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favor of a Guatemalan national who is seeking to stay in the country, citing the threat of persecution.

Leon “Estrella” Santos-Zacaria, a biological man who identifies as a transgender woman, will now be able to argue against the U.S. government’s deportation decision for a second time. 

Lawyers for Santos-Zacaria have argued that their client will face gender-based persecution if ordered to return to Guatemala. 

“We are gratified that the Supreme Court completely vindicated Ms. Santos-Zacaria’s position,” said Santos-Zacaria’s attorney Paul Hughes of McDermott Will & Emery in a statement, per Court House News. “The government urged a result that would have created administrative traps for unsophisticated and under-resourced litigants in immigration proceedings. This result ensures that noncitizens may fairly obtain judicial review, just as Congress intended.”

Santos-Zacaria reportedly fled to America as a teenager after being raped and receiving death threats. Santos-Zacaria was deported in 2008, returned to the U.S. in 2018 and was taken into custody by immigration authorities. Between 2008 and 2018, Santos reportedly lived in Mexico and has claimed to have been assaulted and raped by a Mexican gang, per ABC News

An immigration judge had ruled that Santos-Zacaria’s assault did sufficiently prove a continued threat of persecution in Guatemala to warrant being allowed to remain in the U.S. 

According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School:

Following the immigration judge’s asylum denial, Santos-Zacaria petitioned the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to review the decision. The BIA dismissed the appeal, but on different grounds than previously determined by the immigration judge. The BIA determined that Santos-Zacaria was entitled to a presumption of future persecution on account of her sexual orientation and gender identity. This determination made it easier for Santos-Zacaria to successfully claim asylum. Despite the presumption of future persecution, the BIA also found that the government had successfully shown that future persecution was unlikely. The BIA ultimately rejected all other arguments related to Santos-Zacaria’s petition for asylum, as well as all arguments for other forms of relief.

The Fifth Circuit Court also ruled against Santos-Zacaria, finding that the immigrant did not exhaust all the available avenues of appeal.

According to the court, only after a BIA denial of a motion for reconsideration could a petitioner appeal the decision to an appellate court,” notes the LII. “Since Santos-Zacaria had not filed the motion for reconsideration before appealing the BIA’s decision, the Fifth Circuit noted that it was without jurisdiction and thus dismissed the case.”

Santos-Zacaria then appealed the circuit court’s decision.

The Supreme Court’s ruling deals with whether federal immigration law is flexible enough to allow her another chance at appealing and could make it easier for immigrants to challenge deportation orders in federal court, even if they did not successfully challenge their removal before immigration authorities,” per Forbes.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson authored the majority opinion for the Supreme Court, overturning the lower court’s decision. Her decision “will make it easier for non-citizens to challenge their removal orders in federal court even if they did not fully challenge their removal before immigration authorities,” reports CNN.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barret, and Neil Gorsuch as well as Chief Justice John G. Roberts all joined Jackson.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion and was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. 

Transgender-identifying people in Guatemala can change their names but not their genders on legal documents.

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