An attorney for undocumented immigrant Nelson Pinos argued before a federal appeals court Tuesday that he never had a chance to present his case before receiving an order of deportation decades ago.

“He literally never had his day in court,” lawyer Tina Williams said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Paul will now decide whether to uphold the Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision last year denying Pinos’ motion to reopen his deportation case — the latest development in a controversy that began in Minneapolis and has prompted Pinos to seek sanctuary in a church in his longtime residence of New Haven, Conn.

After migrating from Ecuador to New York in the early 1990s, Pinos briefly visited Minnesota. He was arrested while walking down the street in Minneapolis in 1994 as part of an immigration raid, according to Williams. He was soon released and never appeared for a court date, nor did he inform the court about his change of address.

He was issued what’s known as a deportation order in absentia — a consequence of failing to appear for a court date regarding his immigration status.

Defendants such as Pinos can get their cases reopened if they can prove they did not receive adequate notice of the hearing. Williams said Pinos returned to New York and never knew about the order until checking with an immigration lawyer in 2012.

After Williams emphasized Pinos had been oblivious to the deportation order all those years, Judge Roger L. Wollman asked, “Doesn’t that strain credulity?”

“I honestly don’t think it does,” Williams replied.

A father of three American-born children, Pinos then followed routine check-in requirements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) until late 2017, when he was directed to leave the country and instead went to First and Summerfield United Methodist Church. ICE generally does not arrest undocumented people in places of worship.

Julia Tyler, representing the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, raised questions about inconsistencies in Pinos’ own statements and noted that he had let years pass before trying to find out what happened with his case.

“The record reflects that [Pinos] had many opportunities to correct the situation in which he finds himself,” Tyler said.

She repeatedly cited complicated facets of immigration law, prompting Wollman to remark that he couldn’t follow Tyler at those points.

“I doubt that the Nelsons of the world … understand them,” he said.

Afterward, Williams said she did not know when the court would make a decision.