What if the fate of an immigrant hinged on how the Supreme Court interprets the words “not” and “or”? It might in the case of Campos-Chaves v. Garland, with arguments scheduled for January 8—when the intricacies of U.S. immigration law and the English language collide in the courtroom. 

Moris Campos-Chaves, a gardener from El Salvador who now lives in Houston, faces deportation  due to a missed hearing, which he argues he wasn’t properly notified about.

In 2005, Campos-Chaves entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador and has worked as a gardener in the years since, living with his wife and two U.S.-citizen children. He was ordered removed in absentia after failing to appear at his hearing. However, Campos-Chaves’s attorneys note that he was not provided a date and time of the hearing as the law requires and that the statute allows noncitizens like him to get another chance at avoiding deportation by revoking such an order.

Lucas Champollion, associate professor, Department of Linguistics. Photo by Tracey Friedman.

Lucas Champollion, associate professor, Department of Linguistics. Photo by Tracey Friedman.

Seeking expertise on these matters, the lawyers turned to Lucas Champollion, an NYU linguistics professor whose expertise is in semantics. Champollion led a team of experts in linguistics who filed an amicus brief, in a pro bono capacity, on behalf of Campos-Chaves and other immigrants in late October. Drawing on extensive linguistic evidence, these authors concluded that the federal statute outlining standards for rescission of in absentia removal orders is semantically ambiguous and that, in fact, it can be read in a way that places Campos-Chaves among those who can seek to overturn their orders and get  another hearing.

Specifically, the statute (8 U.S.C. § 1229a) says that noncitizens who want to ask a judge to reopen removal proceedings against them and rescind their in absentia order of removal must show they “did not receive notice” (of a hearing) “in accordance with paragraph (1) or (2)” of the law. 

“The lawyers approached me to ask if there is evidence which shows that this can mean that the noncitizen need either show that he did not receive notice in accordance with paragraph (1) or that he did not receive notice in accordance with paragraph (2),” explains Champollion, who conducted the work with linguistics experts from the University of California, Davis and Stanford University. 

“In other words, they wanted to know what happens when the government is supposed to send out two notices, but their client receives only one of them,” he continues. “So they asked us to take a close look at the interplay of ‘not’ and ‘or’ in ‘he did not receive notice in accordance with paragraph (1) or (2)’.”

A close inspection of just two words reveals a remarkable level of complexity.

“Do these words describe someone who received one notice but not the other? Or do they describe someone who received neither one?” Champollion asks. “For the linguists on my team, this is a textbook case of ambiguity—and there is plenty of evidence to support that conclusion.” 

Depending on how the judges resolve this ambiguity in the law, these two words “not” and “or” could give Campos-Chaves, and hundreds of other immigrants, another chance to avoid deportation.

“We use ambiguous sentences all the time without paying attention to it,” Champollion notes, “and this can happen when the words ‘not’ and ‘or’ are used together. 

“For example, when we say, ‘The man did not receive the book or the pen,’ this might either mean that he received one but not the other, or that he received neither. We can resolve the ambiguity by adding either, ‘I forget which one he did not receive’ or ‘I forgot to send them to him’.”

A ruling is expected this spring.