The Scialabba Supreme Court Decision

On June 9, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that affects many immigrants who are waiting on a visa to become available to them.  The decision, Scialabba v. Cuellar De Osorio, deals with the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA).  The CSPA is a law that is meant to protect certain children who are waiting for immigrant visas to become available. If a child who is the principle beneficiary of a visa petition reaches the age of 21 while the child is waiting for the visa to become available, that child will generally be able to keep his original “priority date” even after he turns 21.  In the language of immigration benefits, a beneficiary’s “priority date” is generally the date an immigration petition was filed on his behalf—it is essentially the beneficiary’s place in line in the wait for an immigrant visa.  So the CSPA’s protection of a beneficiary’s priority date allows children who reach the age of 21 to keep their places in line.

The question in Scialabba v. Cuellar De Osorio is whether the CSPA applies to children who are derivative beneficiaries rather than principle beneficiaries.  Derivative beneficiaries are immigrants who are piggy-backing on someone else’s immigration application.  For example, if a U.S. citizen files a petition for his brother to come to the United States, the brother’s children might be able to enter the U.S. following the visa approval as derivative beneficiaries.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided in this case that the CSPA applies only to principle beneficiaries, not derivative beneficiaries.  In coming to this decision, the Supreme Court relied on a decision known as ChevronChevron essentially states that if a federal statute is ambiguous, the courts will defer to the agency that promulgates law in the area to construe the meaning of the statute.

In the context of immigration law, the agency that promulgates law is known as the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).  In this case, the BIA determined that the CSPA applies only to principle, and not derivative, beneficiaries.  Since the Supreme Court determined that the statute was ambiguous, the court found it appropriate to defer to the BIA’s interpretation.  This is the reason that the case was decided as it was.  It is unfortunate, however, because now many derivative beneficiaries will “age out” (turn 21) and no longer be able to keep the original priority dates on their immigration petitions.