Moris Esmelis Campos-Chaves sat in the plaintiff’s seat in the Supreme Court chamber on a cold, gloomy day in early January. It was a moment the dark-skinned, five-foot-ten gardener had been waiting for for nineteen years. Campos-Chaves entered the U.S. illegally in 2005 with his wife and two of his U.S.-born children by wading across the Rio Grande near Laredo. The family had fled violence in El Salvador, according to his lawyer, Raed Gonzalez, and Campos-Chaves had worked in the U.S. for nearly two decades since. A ruling, expected later this year, over the validity of the document ordering his deportation will not only affect the family’s future, but could have far-reaching effects for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants—and it all comes down to the definition of one word: “change.”

Shortly after Campos-Chaves’s arrival in the U.S., he received a notice to appear from the Department of Homeland Security before an immigration judge. A time and place would be set later, the notice indicated. When the immigration court sent him a second notice four months later with the time and place, Campos-Chaves did not appear and was ordered to be removed from the country. He says he never received the notice or the order.

So he stayed, lying low and continuing his work as a landscaper for nearly two decades, mostly in Houston, with his family. “He came to the United States for a better future for himself and his family and worked for his life since day one,” Gonzalez, his attorney, told me. “He never asked for any help from the government and paid his taxes every year. . . . Never involved in any type of conflict with anyone in the world.”

In 2018, a Supreme Court’s decision kindled Campos-Chaves’s hope that he could stay in the U.S. That ruling, in Pereira v. Sessions, stipulated that a notice to appear must contain the time and place for a removal hearing. Campos-Chaves asked an immigration court to reopen his case, but the judge denied his request. He appealed the decision to the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected his appeal.

In 2023, Campos-Chaves appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which combined his case with others, Garland v. Singh and Mendez-Colín, and held a two-hour hearing in early January 2024. Campos-Chaves’s team argues that even if he had received a second notice, which did include a time and date, it was procedurally improper. To be valid, any further notices can only  “change” the hearing to a “new” time and place, according to the 2004 regulation

“The term ‘change’ is important because it determines whether the notice to appear is legally effective. That’s the question the court has to answer,” said Andrew Arthur, the resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies. 

The federal government argued that Campos-Chaves’s order was valid because adding a time and place constitutes a “change.” “Under the ordinary meaning of ‘change,’ particularly as it’s used in this statutory scheme, going from an indeterminate time and place to a determined one is a kind of change,” said Charles McCloud, an attorney with the Department of Justice. 

Easha Anand, a lawyer representing the immigrants, argued the government was “flouting the plain text.” “Ordinary speakers of English don’t use ‘change’ to refer to indeterminate time to determinate time,” Anand said. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor also seemed to disagree with McCloud’s interpretation. “So change is no change?” she asked.

When the law clashes with ordinary language usage, how the Supreme Court rules would not only affect the legal status of undocumented immigrants but could also shape the public’s understanding of federal immigration law. Lucas Champollion, an associate professor in linguistics at New York University, emphasized the ambiguity of the statute itself. In it, noncitizens who want to ask a judge to reopen removal proceedings against them must show they “did not receive notice” (of a hearing) “in accordance with paragraph (1) or (2)” of the statute. It’s that “or” that provides uncertainty.

Champollion, who led a team of linguistics experts in filing an amicus brief on behalf of Campos-Chaves, says the ordinary meaning of the word “change” carries “a presupposition that there has been something done previously and there is something different” or the word could suggest a status change.

Anand echoed Champollion’s opinion in the hearing as she said the word “change” does not encompass “the difference between TBD and March 15th.”

With the unprecedented influx of migrants crossing the border from Texas since 2022, the court’s decision, which is expected by June, could affect a large group of undocumented immigrants. The federal government’s argument is that since many undocumented immigrants, like Campos-Chaves, have received notices without dates and times, a decision in his favor would result in “an avalanche” of “hundreds of thousands of cases” reopening and overwhelming the immigration system. 

“Mr. Campos-Chaves’s experience is very common for undocumented immigrants, especially on the border,” said Audrey Mulholland, director of immigration at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Mulholland says that until 2021, when a Supreme Court decision required that all information be delivered in a single document, nearly every notice she’d seen did not have a time and place settled. In fact, in the 2018 Pereira case, the federal government admitted that “almost 100 percent” of “notices to appear omit the time and date of the proceeding over the last three years.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, at the January hearing, echoed an often-repeated assertion that nearly one third of all removals result from hearing absences. But a 2021 report from the American Immigration Council challenges this statement, finding that 83 percent of immigrants with completed or pending removal cases attended all their hearings from 2008 to 2018. Of those represented by lawyers, 96 percent attended all hearings. The report concluded that many individuals who failed to appear in court wanted to attend their hearings but never received notice or faced hardship in getting to court.

Kathleen Bush-Joseph, a policy analyst at Migrant Policy Institute, said that the Campos-Chaves case highlights the need for a more advanced system for issuing notices and accessing documents—as well as the need to provide translations to help migrants access legal resources—regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision.“The whole immigration system definitely needs to take more staff and then increase the use of technology, not only on the government side, but increasing the ability of migrants themselves to be able to access documents online is really important,” Bush-Joseph said. 

If Campos-Chaves loses this time around, he says he’ll obey the removal order and find another place to live with his family, according to Gonzalez. El Salvador, with its gang violence and threats, is not an option. They can’t imagine their life any other way but in the United States, together as a family.

This story was published in partnership with Medill News Service.