The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases on Monday: Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and Sanchez v. Mayorkas. These cases will determine which Alaskan native groups are eligible to receive COVID-19 relief funds and will impact tens of thousands of immigrants living and working in the US under a Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation involves the distribution of CARES funding to Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs). In 1971, the federal government bought up all the land claimed by indigenous Alaskans and redistributed that territory to tribes by creating more than 200 village corporations and 13 larger regional corporations. Many of these ANCs were later recognized as sovereign Indian nations. There are now three types of Alaskan native organizations—regional corporations, village corporations, and federally recognized tribes, also called Alaska native villages.
Monday’s oral argument asked whether the corporations were intended to receive some of the $8 billion in CARES funding set aside for native tribes. The Treasury Department argued that the corporations were meant to receive funding, citing the clause in the CARES Act which defines Indian tribes to include “any Alaska Native village or regional or village corporation.” The opposing parties, a group of federally recognized tribes from Alaska and the lower 48, argued that the clause following this descriptor specifies that funding should go only to groups that are “recognized as eligible…because of their status as Indians.”
The justices expressed concern about what their interpretation would mean for the provision of services through ANCs. If the court were to exclude ANCs from receiving CARES funds, justices worried that “Alaska natives who benefit from the services provided by the ANCs…will get nothing.”
Sanchez v. Mayorkas asks whether noncitizens who work and reside in the US under a TPS status can gain lawful permanent resident status despite the fact that they were not formally “admitted and inspected” upon entry. TPS is reserved for those fleeing emergencies like war and natural disasters. The petitioners argued that for the purpose of residency status adjustment, admittance is implied by TPS recipients’ non-immigrant status. Amy Saharia, representing a couple that was denied a green card due to their temporary protected status, said, “In the same way, for example, that having been paroled is inherent in parolee status, having been inspected and admitted is inherent in having non-immigrant status.” The justices were hesitant to read in that interpretation, with Justice Kavanaugh asking “If Congress was intending to do what you want, it was almost certain there would be more explicit language?”
The Biden administration argued that temporary protected status does not automatically imply that status holders were admitted and inspected because the immigration statute creates several exceptions for certain admission requirements that impact a person’s ability to gain lawful permanent residency, and TPS was not listed as being exempt from the inspection requirement. They urged the court to defer to DHS’ interpretation of the statute. If the court ruled in favor of the state, thousands of non-citizens here on TPS would be blocked from obtaining green cards. However, as Justice Kavanaugh noted, the US House recently passed a bill that would create an official path to citizenship for people in the US on TPS. But this legislation still faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.