WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard a case Tuesday morning that raised technical questions about the legal labyrinth of U.S. immigration procedure with possible impacts on thousands of migrants hoping to overturn deportation orders in federal courts. 

The case, Santos-Zacaria v. Garland, concerns the appeal of a transgender woman, Estrella Santos-Zacaria, who is seeking to avoid deportation to Guatemala after the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that she would not be persecuted upon returning to her home country.

At issue is whether Santos-Zacaria is entitled to appeal her case in federal court and if she has exhausted her options below federal court. During oral arguments, the justices seemed to resonate with the idea that the federal appeals court has the authority to hear the appeal.

The case presented two challenging questions regarding the steps immigrants must follow, according to the Immigration and Nationality Act, when appealing a deportation and whether those guidelines must be fulfilled for a federal appeals court to hear the case.

The government attempted to deport Santos-Zacaria, 34, who said a neighbor in Guatemala raped her and threatened to kill her at age 12 due to her gender identity and was ridiculed in her home country for her appearance and sexual orientation. 

The Biden administration, represented by Yaira Dubin from the Solicitor General’s office, argued that federal courts should not hear the case because Santos-Zacaria failed to exhaust all appeal options available to her. 

Kate Melloy Goettel, the legal director at the American Immigration Council, said she is worried that a ruling with the government would impact an already-backlogged immigration system. 

“You’re going to have people filing this redo motion called a motion to reconsider … essentially asking the Board of Immigration Appeals to look at the case again,” Melloy Goettel said. “I think there’s a lot of reason to believe that this is going to increase the big backlog.”

Immigration courts are facing over two million backlogged cases, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC database.

The justices homed in on whether the federal courts have jurisdiction over the appeals. Attorney Paul Hughes argued on behalf of Santos-Zacaria.

After two decades of moving between the U.S., Mexico and Guatemala – including being deported from the U.S. twice – Santos-Zacaria returned to the U.S. in May 2018. She applied for immigration relief known as “withholding for removal,” a legal protection that prevents an individual from being sent back to a country where they are likely to face persecution.

An immigration court reinstated Santos-Zacaria’s deportation order for insufficient evidence that she would be persecuted upon returning to Guatemala. Santos-Zacaria said during cross-examination that there is “probably another place [she] can live down there.”

The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed with the judge, stating that the government rebutted Santos-Zacaria’s claim that she would be persecuted if deported, which Santos-Zacaria asserted was impermissible fact finding. 

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the BIA’s ruling in a 2-1 decision, saying it was unable to hear Santos-Zacaria’s appeal because she made arguments she did not bring up before the BIA. It referred to a provision from the Immigration and Nationality Act that says a federal appeals court cannot weigh in on removal unless the noncitizen has “exhausted all administrative remedies” available to them.

Keren Zwick, the director of litigation at National Immigrant Justice Center, said the U.S.’s byzantine immigration system requires asylum-seekers to make extremely specific and consistent arguments throughout the process.

“Those kinds of things are uniquely problematic for LGBT folks because people’s identities are shifting throughout the course of their proceeding,” she said.

An amicus brief from former immigration judges echoed concerns about the backlog of asylum cases, adding that reconsideration motions would rarely change rulings while increasing work for immigration judges. 

Samuel Cole, the executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, agreed that requiring migrants to make a motion to reconsider would burden immigration courts.

“We have a backlog in immigration courts because the immigration courts are part of a politically managed court system underneath the Attorney General of the United States, and the only way to fix the backlog crisis is to create an independent immigration court,” he said.

Smita Ghosh, appellate counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center, which signed an amicus brief in support of Santos-Zacaria, stressed that even though the case concerns technical aspects of immigration law, it may have significant consequences for individuals seeking asylum.

“[Immigration cases are] not like a criminal trial where they have a right to representation, to have counsel, and often because of mandatory detention laws, they’re detained,” Ghosh said. “We use that not to say that the court should relax rules for them, but to put it in context that these requirements would have a real impact on individual people who are trying to get access to courts.”

The court expects to make a ruling in the spring.