WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave tens of thousands of alien farm laborers, in the country illegally, a new right yesterday to fairer procedures in the government's handling of their pleas to remain in the United States.
Dividing 7-2, the court issued its first significant ruling on the "amnesty" rights that Congress granted to illegal aliens five years ago in a law enacted to deal with the plight of a "shadow population" of millions of foreigners living in the United States illegally.
Lawyers for alien laborers said the new decision would give as many as 100,000 workers a greater chance to have their cases reopened in a new attempt to win "amnesty" and thus stay in the country.
The ruling does not guarantee the right to stay to any individual alien. Individuals still must win that right, one case at a time, but they will have a more assured chance of proving their eligibility for amnesty under the 1986 law as a result of the new ruling.
Under the one-time amnesty program set up by Congress, illegal alien laborers could seek the right to U.S. residency if they could prove they had done at least 90 days of farm work in this country in the 12-month period before May 1, 1986.
An alien farm laborer granted the right to stay not only avoids the risk of being deported or arrested, but also is free to continue working in this country -- a right that the 1986 law took away from illegal aliens who do not qualify for the amnesty.
Those opportunities, the court said, are important enough to aliens that they cannot be denied without "constitutionally fair procedures in the application process."
Groups representing alien laborers had sued the Immigration and Naturalization Service in federal court in Florida, contending that the INS' amnesty review process was "arbitrary" because it gave aliens little or no chance to refute evidence against their eligibility, and because it denied them rights to call witnesses, to have interpreters on hand and to have the case recorded so that it could be challenged on appeal.
A federal judge, in a 1988 ruling, wiped out large categories of INS decisions denying amnesty to individual farm workers and ordered the agency to use interpreters in Spanish and Haitian Creole, to permit witnesses' testimony and to spell out negative evidence clearly.
A federal appeals court upheld that tentative ruling in 1989, and the INS then took the dispute on to the Supreme Court. The agency contended that individual aliens could not take their constitutional claims to a federal judge in a single lawsuit representing many aliens, but could only challenge INS procedures one case at a time after amnesty had been denied them individually.
Under the INS approach, no alien could protest in court against the agency's process unless that individual had been ordered deported. The INS said that limitation was necessary to keep the courts from interfering in the agency's day-to-day review of aliens' status.
Rejecting that approach, the Supreme Court majority declared, in an opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, that Congress has not limited aliens' access to the courts in that way. The aliens' right to go to court to protest, the court said, is limited only when an individual has been denied amnesty and wants his or her own case reviewed. Thus, the court ruled, the broad lawsuit against the INS' system of processing requests for amnesty is not barred.
Justice Stevens' opinion in the case of McNary vs. Haitian Refugee Center (No. 89-1332) was supported by Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Anthony M. Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Byron R. White.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented, accusing the majority of rewriting the 1986 law in a way that will weigh down amnesty cases in paperwork.