Federal courts could not review the U.S. Attorney General’s decisions denying discretionary relief from removal – even in a case where the alien contends that the decision was based on a factual error, the U.S. Supreme Court has held, 5-4, affirming the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Patel v. Garland, No. 20-979 (May 16, 2022).

The decision was authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett. She was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanagh, and Clarence Thomas. The Supreme Court had granted review to resolve a split in the circuits.

In this case, Pankajkumat Patel and his wife sought discretionary relief from removal and deportation in the form of two different adjustment of status applications. They had entered the United States illegally in the 1990s. They have three sons – one a U.S. citizen and two who are legal permanent residents. In 2007, the Patels tried to repair their situation by seeking discretionary relief, but their adjustment applications were denied because Patel had claimed to be U.S. citizen by checking the wrong box on a driver’s license application. He argued that this was a simple error on his part and that he had no intention or any reason to claim to be a U.S. citizen to obtain a driver’s license because, in Georgia (where he lived), he was eligible for a driver’s license based upon the fact that he had a pending adjustment application and valid work authorization.

The U.S. government supported Patel and argued that factual findings were not discretionary and, therefore, could be reviewed. Since the government did not support the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling, the Supreme Court appointed an amicus to argue on its behalf, Taylor A.R. Meehan, a former 11th Circuit and Supreme Court law clerk. Meehan is one of the few women who have ever selected for this role. Meehan argued that any authoritative decisions encompassing any and all decisions related to the granting or denying of discretionary relief are unreviewable.

Justice Neil Gorsuch joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan offered a strong dissent:

It is no secret that when processing applications, licenses, and permits the government sometimes makes mistakes. Often, they are small ones—a misspelled name, a misplaced application. But sometimes a bureaucratic mistake can have life-changing consequences. Our case is such a case. An immigrant to this country applied for legal residency. The government rejected his application. Allegedly, the government did so based on a glaring factual error. In cir­cumstances like that, our law has long permitted individu­als to petition a court to consider the question and correct any mistake.

Not anymore. Today, the Court holds that a federal bu­reaucracy can make an obvious factual error, one that will result in an individual’s removal from this country, and nothing can be done about it. No court may even hear the case. It is a bold claim promising dire consequences for countless lawful immigrants. And it is such an unlikely as­sertion of raw administrative power that not even the agency that allegedly erred, nor any other arm of the Exec­utive Branch, endorses it. Today’s majority acts on its own to shield the government from the embarrassment of hav­ing to correct even its most obvious errors.

Due in part to motor voter laws, other immigrants since 2017 have made the mistake that Patel made. The harshness of this ruling further emphasizes how one small mistake can ruin an immigrant’s chance at immigrating the United States.