Supreme Court Decision Could Mean Hope For Sandra Lopez

Sep 6, 2018

The crowd in Carbondale waited for Sandra Lopez to emerge from the house she hadn’t left in almost a year.  

The undocumented Mexican immigrant had taken sanctuary with the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation, living in their parsonage because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) doesn’t make arrests in what they call “sensitive locations,” like houses of worship.

In August, however, ICE confirmed Lopez is not a priority for removal. She told the crowd she was excited to be returning to her home in Silt.

“I’m very happy today,” she said. “Finally, I’m free.”

Police arrested Lopez in 2010, after responding to a domestic disturbance at her home. The charges were dropped, but she was still reported to ICE. Ever since, she’s known she could be separated from her family.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision this past June in the case Pereira vs. Sessions might have altered the playing field somewhat.

Based on that decision, Jennifer Smith, Sandra Lopez’s attorney, is arguing Lopez’s case should should be thrown out because the government screwed up its paperwork. She has no idea if this will work.

“I am excited about it,” Smith said.

The issue is what’s called a “Notice to Appear” (NTA), a crucial document in any deportation proceeding. For years, the government has been issuing NTAs that don’t say when and where people are supposed to appear.

Think of it this way: A cop pulls you over for speeding and you get a ticket. You can pay the fine, or if you want to contest it in court, the ticket tells you where to go.  

Lopez was given an NTA, which listed the charges against her.

“In the blank for date and time, hers says ‘to be set,’” Smith explained.

In Pereira vs. Sessions, the Supreme Court decided 8-1 that an NTA without a date or a time was invalid. If Lopez’s deportation proceedings started erroneously, Smith is arguing that none of the subsequent rulings in her case hold any water.

According to Smith, Lopez is one of many whose case could be impacted.

“We don’t have a single client who has a Notice To Appear with a date or time,” she said.

Of course, Lopez did show up in immigration court; they eventually told her where to go. Is it fair, then, to throw her case out, just because the government didn’t fill out a form like they were supposed to?

Violeta Chapin, a law professor at CU Boulder, says yes it is.  

“The United States government also needs to follow the law,” Chapin said.  

Not including a date or time on an NTA isn’t just a minor error, Chapin said. If the government is trying to deport you, you have the right to fight back. Not being told when and where to go makes it impossible to defend yourself.

According to Chapin, the government is fighting these so-called “Pereira motions.”

“It’s going to be extraordinarily inconvenient to have to look at potentially hundreds of thousands of cases to see if they need to be dismissed,” she said.   

Lopez’s case is one of many working its way through the courts, charting new legal territory.

It’s currently with the Board of Immigration Appeals. If they rule against her, Smith plans to appeal to a higher court.