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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A case that could allow thrice-deported Humberto Fernandez-Vargas to return to the United States and rejoin his family in Ogden will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court's decision could affect hundreds of thousands of longtime illegal immigrants in the United States.
The court agreed last month to hear the case to clarify the rights of longtime undocumented immigrants to seek permission to stay in the United States. Oral arguments are anticipated next spring.
In court briefs, Department of Justice lawyers say the question is of significant practical importance to the enforcement of immigration laws.
Immigration lawyers as well as anti- and pro-immigration groups around the country are watching it closely.
"This case has picked up a lot of attention," said David Leopold, an American Immigration Lawyers Association executive committee member.
At issue is whether a law that provides for the reinstatement of a previous deportation order against a person who illegally re-entered the country applies to those who arrived before its April 1997 effective date.
"It's pretty straightforward," David M. Gossett, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Fernandez-Vargas, told the Deseret Morning News. "Why should the government apply a law passed in 1996 to people who are already in the country? It doesn't make sense."
However, Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, contends that Fernandez-Vargas came into the country illegally and should not be rewarded for it.
"Every step of the way, he knew what he was doing was illegal," he said.
Federal appeals courts have issued conflicting rulings.
The 6th and 9th circuit courts of appeals concluded the statute does not apply to undocumented immigrants who re-entered the country before April 1997.
Had Fernandez-Vargas, 53, lived in one of those states, he would not have been deported but allowed to obtain a green card.
Eight courts of appeals, including the 10th Circuit, which includes Utah, concluded the law does apply retroactively and those who re-entered the United States without documentation have no standing to become permanent residents.
Advancing the case to the top court creates some uncertainty for undocumented immigrants, especially those in the West, who have raised families and established employment over years or decades. A ruling in the government's favor would preclude them from gaining legal status.
According to government estimates, hundreds of thousands of people live in circumstances similar to that of Fernandez-Vargas.
Fernandez-Vargas was deported at least three times and last re-entered the United States in 1982. He married an American citizen, has a teenage son and owned a trucking business. He applied for a green card on the basis of his marriage. Immigration agents arrested him during a routine interview in 2003, reinstated a 21-year-old deportation order, held him in jail and a year later sent him back to Mexico.
The separation has taken an emotional toll on him and his family. But the Supreme Court's announcement was welcome news.
"I feel like I'm going to win," Fernandez-Vargas told the newspaper by telephone from Cuauhtemoc, Mexico. "I feel like I'm going to get the (immigration) papers back."
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)