Supreme Court rules against Los Angeles couple denied visa in part over husband’s tattoos

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled 6-3 against a Los Angeles woman who argued her constitutional rights were violated when the federal government denied a visa to her Salvadoran husband, in part because they viewed his tattoos as gang-related.

The broad ruling is a major setback for Americans with foreign spouses because it explicitly rejects the idea that a citizen has a constitutional right to attempt to bring their noncitizen spouse into the country.

The majority, led by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, said that while the plaintiff, L.A. civil rights attorney Sandra Muñoz, does have a fundamental right to marriage, she failed to establish that right extends to living with her husband in the U.S.

“In fact, Congress’s longstanding regulation of spousal immigration — including through bars on admissibility — cuts the other way,” Barrett said, concluding that “a citizen does not have a fundamental liberty interest in her noncitizen spouse being admitted to the country.”


Luis Asencio Cordero, who lived in the U.S. until 2015, has been separated from Muñoz since his visa was denied during a consular interview in El Salvador.


The couple sought to file a new visa application with evidence refuting his alleged membership in the MS-13 gang, and wanting assurance that the federal government would review it.

The government said it denied the visa due to concerns that Asencio Cordero would be likely to engage in unlawful activity if he were allowed back into the U.S.

Muñoz argued the government violated her rights to marriage and due process by failing to provide a timely explanation for her husband’s visa denial. After the couple sued, they learned through their lawsuit that the government believed he was an MS-13 gang member, based on his tattoos, an interview and a background check including “confidential law enforcement information.” Asencio Cordero had no criminal history in the U.S. or in El Salvador.

Asencio Cordero’s tattoos depict the comedy and tragedy theater masks, La Virgen de Guadalupe and a tribal design with a paw print. He denies they are affiliated with a gang, and a court-approved gang expert agreed.

A long-established judicial policy — the doctrine of consular nonreviewability — prevents court reviews of visa determinations except in limited cases.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the couple in 2022. The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling, arguing that because Muñoz and Asencio Cordero could choose to live outside the U.S., her right to marriage has not been violated.

Immigration officers have broad discretion about whom to admit into the country, administration lawyers said. They also said that requiring the government to disclose specific details about the evidence and intelligence used in such decisions would slow processing, pose a risk to public safety and could chill future information-sharing with foreign partners.

But the dispute over tattoos and what role they played in Munoz’s denial was not at issue. Instead, the majority agreed with the State Department’s concern that Muñoz’s claims could have “unsettling collateral consequences.” They questioned whether a wife could then challenge her husband’s assignment to a remote prison or overseas military deployment, or whether a citizen could challenge their immigrant spouse’s deportation proceedings.

Muñoz’s position would “usher in a new strain of constitutional law,” Barrett wrote, because the Constitution doesn’t prevent the government from taking actions that indirectly burden a citizen’s legal rights.

Barrett wrote that while Congress can use its authority over immigration to prioritize family unity, that is “a matter of legislative grace.” She said the 9th Circuit Court based in San Francisco stood alone in having embraced that as an “asserted right.”

“Muñoz has suffered harm from the denial of Asencio-Cordero’s visa application, but that harm does not give her a constitutional right to participate in his consular process,” Barrett said.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented. Writing for the dissent, Sotomayor said the majority’s fear that the case could result in a slippery slope of constitutional challenges is groundless.

Sotomayor said she agreed with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who wrote in an opinion concurring with the majority that because the factual basis for the government’s denial of Asencio Cordero’s visa has been revealed, Muñoz has already received the process she was due.

“There is no question that excluding a citizen’s spouse burdens her right to marriage, and that burden requires the Government to provide at least a factual basis for its decision,” Sotomayor wrote.

That simple resolution should have ended the case, Sotomayor said, but instead “the majority swings for the fences,” limits the court’s longstanding precedent about the fundamental right to marriage, “and gravely undervalues the right to marriage in the immigration context.”

Just because a married couple could move their home elsewhere does not suddenly remove the burden on their constitutional rights for not being able to live together in the U.S., Sotomayor wrote. She cited Loving vs. Virginia, which struck down state laws banning interracial marriage.

The court “did not tell Richard and Mildred Loving to stay in the District of Columbia,” she said. “It upheld their ability to exercise their right to marriage wherever they sought to make their home.”

Sotomayor continued: “The majority’s holding will also extend to those couples who… depend on American law for their marriages’ validity. Same-sex couples may be forced to relocate to countries that do not recognize same-sex marriage, or even those that criminalize homosexuality.”

The National Immigrant Justice Center said the decision will make litigation by families in similar situations all but impossible moving forward. So, while Muñoz and Asencio Cordero eventually got a basic explanation for his visa denial, others might never access such information.

The couple’s attorney Eric Lee said he worries the decision opens the door to justifying the dismantling of other rights that are not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, such as gay marriage.

“It’s hard to overstate how dangerous this decision is not only for our clients and for similarly situated mixed immigration families,” Lee said. “It sets the stage for taking the country back to a very dark period in its history.”


Separately this week, President Biden announced an executive order to protect immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens who have lived consecutively in the country for at least a decade. At the White House on Tuesday, Biden said it’s the right thing to do.

“There’s already a system in place for people we’re talking about today,” Biden said. “But the process is cumbersome, risky, and it separates families. From the current process, undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens must go back to their home country... to obtain long-term legal status. They have to leave their families in America, with no assurance they’ll be allowed back in the United States.”

Had he never left the country, Asencio Cordero could have qualified for protections. For Lee, the announcement was bittersweet. He implored Biden to extend similar protections to families who are already separated because of such visa denials.

“We hope the new relief applies to as many families as possible,” Lee said, “but it is hard not to ask: If these are the new criteria, then why did the administration fight Sandra and Luis’ case as hard as they did for so many years?”

Times staff writer David G. Savage contributed to this report.


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