Navigating the complexities of U.S. immigration law can be a bewildering experience, especially for those without legal training. With the threat of deportation often looming, the trust an undocumented immigrant places in his or her attorney is tantamount to the relationship between doctor and sick patient.
But what recourse do immigrants have when they're denied the chance to defend themselves in court because of a mishandled case? The Supreme Court ruled Monday in a case that raised that question, finding that an appeals court has jurisdiction to intervene on deportation.
“An attorney can actually cover up his malpractice, and the client doesn’t have any relief,” attorney Raed Gonzalez, who represented Noel Reyes Mata in his case before the high court, said prior to the decision.
Gonzalez, a partner in Houston immigration law firm Gonzalez Olivieri LLC, said immigrants seeking to reopen their deportation proceedings can often be unaware of their lawyers' legal missteps for months or even years.
"There are a lot of joker attorneys out there,” he said.
Calls to the Justice Department for comment on the case weren't returned.
The backstory: In 2010, Mata, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, pleaded guilty to charges of assaulting his girlfriend, and deportation proceedings were swiftly begun.
He petitioned to halt them through the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), an appeals court within the Justice Department. But his lawyers at the time blundered by not filing the proper appeals documents to the court, Gonzalez said, and Mata's appeal was thrown out.
After he had hired new lawyers, Mata asked that his case be reopened, saying he hadn't been made aware of his former attorney’s clerical error until after the 90-day filing deadline had passed.
The BIA dismissed his appeal, and Mata then asked a federal appeals court to contest the BIA's judgment, saying his lawyer’s failure to file necessary paperwork had denied him of his legal rights. The Fifth Circuit’s response: We can't overturn a BIA ruling.
But Mata's lawyers asked the Supreme Court take the case on, and the justices agreed. They issued their 8-1 decision Monday, holding that a federal appeals court has jurisdiction in such a case and can delay a deadline for an immigrant seeking to reopen a deportation case based on ineffective counsel.
Legal experts said before the decision that a Supreme Court ruling in Mata's favor could bolster due process rights for vulnerable immigrants nationally.
“If a non-citizen establishes that his lawyer messed up and the results could have been different, the case should be reopened,” New York-based immigration attorney Kerry Bretz of Bretz and Coven LLP said before the ruling said in an email.
“The BIA has a habit of applying its opinion (often not favorable to non-citizens) in all the circuit courts that have not addressed a particular issue. That is the case here," Bretz added. "Sadly, the Fifth Circuit failed to do the right thing."
Sheridan Green, an associate with Gonzalez Olivieri, the firm representing Mata, expressed optimism about what the ruling would mean for other immigrants.
“Sometimes these attorneys did really awful things. Sometimes it’s just negligence, but sometimes it’s just straight up fraud. And the fifth circuit hasn’t been of any help to us. So what this is going to do is open up judicial review for foreign nationals.”