November 17, 2014


By Michelle S. Velasco

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) regularly releases statistics on the H1B – the top occupations and the top employers that file Labor Condition Applications (LCA) for these nonimmigrant worker petitions. As of the Fourth Quarter of FY 2014, six of the top ten certified positions were computer-related occupations.  The rest of the positions in the top ten are Accountants/Auditors, Management Analysts, Financial Analysts, and Electronics Engineers who do not work on computers.  Altogether they make up about 77% of all LCAs submitted to the DOL for certification.
The USCIS last released an H-1B report in July 2013 for FY 2012.  USCIS reported that approximately 59.5% of approved H-1B petitions were for computer-related occupations, and the rest of the top five were occupations in architecture, engineering, and surveying; administrative specializations; education; and medicine and health.
But, what of the other H-1B occupations?  Such uncommon H-1B occupations may include food service managers and music managers, among others.  These nontraditional H-1B “specialty occupations” are less often processed by USCIS and often pose a greater challenge for attorneys and their clients because they do not fit neatly with other “specialty occupations” that USCIS officers commonly see.  This is also part of a growing trend where the USCIS is viewing such occupations more skeptically, even if the record contains evidence favoring an approval.  It is helpful here to first define this doozy of a term.  
8 CFR 214.2(h)(4) defines “specialty occupation” as one in which:
…requires theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge in fields of human endeavor including, but not limited to, architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts, and which requires the attainment of a bachelor's degree or higher in a specific specialty, or its equivalent, as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States.
To hire a foreign worker under the H-1B category, the employer must show in its petition that the proffered position meets at least one of the following criteria:
  1. A baccalaureate or higher degree or its equivalent is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position;
  2. The degree requirement is common to the industry in parallel positions among similar organizations or, in the alternative, an employer may show that its particular position is so complex or unique that it can be performed only by an individual with a degree;
  3. The employer normally requires a degree or its equivalent for the position; or
  4. The nature of the specific duties are so specialized and complex that knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with the attainment of a baccalaureate or higher degree.
8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A)
Practitioners may find that despite efforts to indicate to the USCIS that the complexity and specialized nature of the proffered position meets the definition of an H-1B specialty occupation, the USCIS will nonetheless issue Requests for Evidence (RFEs) or denials. This is because the USCIS is unwilling to issue H-1B approvals for positions that do not are dissimilar to common H-1B occupations, such as computer programmers or analysts, and are unwilling to consider evidence of the complexity of occupations as evidence. RFEs often request information such as:
  • Documentation describing the business, such as business plans, reports, presentations, promotional materials, newspaper articles, website printouts, etc.
  • Detailed description of the proffered position, including approximate percentages of time for each duty that the beneficiary performs
  • Copies of contracts or work orders from every company that will utilize the beneficiary’s services to show the beneficiary will be performing duties of a specialty occupation
  • Documentation of how many other individuals in the employer’s organization are currently or were employed in the same position, along with evidence such as employees’ degrees and evidence of employment in the form of paystubs or tax forms
Yet, despite providing such evidence, the employer may nevertheless, receive a denial of the petition even after carefully responding to an RFE. Attorneys are left scratching their heads at some of the frustrating reasoning posited by USCIS that often ignores regulation and precedent.  
One problematic course that USCIS continues to take is overly relying on the DOL’s Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) when determining whether a bachelor’s degree is a normal requirement for an occupation.  The OOH may guide the USCIS, but it does not in and of itself define what is a specialty occupation – only the regulations can do this. Moreover, the OOH should not be the only source USCIS should use when determining whether a bachelor’s degree is a normal requirement for a proffered position.  The USCIS should not ignore the employer’s statements and evidence of its normal practice of requiring a bachelor’s degree for a proffered position.   USCIS should analyze the proffered position based on the definition provided in 8 CFR 214.2(h)4)(iii)(A) instead of relying heavily on the OOH.  See Fred 26 Importers, Inc. v. DHS, 445 F. Supp.2d 1174, 1180-81 (C.D. Cal. 2006)(court reversed AAO where it failed to address expert and other evidence and simply asserted that a small company did not require specialized and complex duties); The Button Depot, Inc. v. DHS, 386 F Supp.2d 1140, 1148 (C.D. Cal. 2005)(court reversed AAO decision and found AAO had abused discretion when it applied unrelated regulatory provisions and failed to provide a basis for its conclusion that “it does not agreed with the opinion evidence submitted by the petitioner); Matter of – (AAO unpublished decision, Aug. 15, 2006, WAC 0417253199)(AAO reversed, finding that although OOH does not state a baccalaureate level education is the normal minimum requirement, the duties of the position are so specialized and complex that knowledge required to perform them is usually associated with the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher).
Second, the USCIS ignores expert opinions that determine the proffered position is a specialty occupation by virtue of its complex and unique nature.  In Matter of Chawathe, 25 I&N Dec. 369, 376 (AAO 2010) the AAO directs the USCIS to examine each piece of evidence for relevance, probative value, and credibility, individually and in the context of the entire record according to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard.  The USCIS may reject an expert opinion letter or give it less weight if it is not in accordance with other information in the record or if it is questionable.  See Matter of Caron Int’l, Inc., 19 I&N Dec. 791, 795 (Comm’r 1988).  However, if “the expert testimony [is] reliable, relevant, and probative as to the specific facts in issue” then the USCIS must not ignore it.  See Matter of Skirball Cultural Center, 25 I&N Dec. 799, 805-806 (AAO 2012).  In Matter of Skirball, the AAO reversed the USCIS’s denial of a P visa petition for a musical group, finding that the USCIS erroneously rejected expert opinion even though it did not question the credentials of the experts who provided opinions, take issue with the experts’ knowledge of the group’s musical skills, or find any reason to doubt the truthfulness of the testimony.  The reasoning in Matter of Skirball must be applied to the adjudication of H-1B nontraditional specialty occupations where often the employer must rely on expert opinion and atypical evidence to support their assertion that the duties of the position are so complex and unique that a bachelor’s degree is required to execute those duties. Thus the USCIS should not ignore or reject expert opinions especially if they are submitted in conjunction with other supporting evidence when the USCIS has no reason to doubt the veracity of the testimony.
Although it may be daunting to file H-1B petitions for nontraditional or uncommon specialty occupations, attorneys can overcome or avoid the USCIS’s sometimes inconsistent and wrong application of the standards in place in 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A). When preparing the H-1B petition, attorneys should research the occupation thoroughly and have a full understanding of the job duties, the nature of the organization, and the position’s standing within the company. The explanation of the duties should be detailed and, if possible, include the approximate percentage of time spent on each.  Evidence to support the petition should include information about the company, the nature of the industry, the complexity of the position, and proof that the beneficiary has obtained the education and/or experience level required for the position.  There may be times when the proffered position may fall within a category of occupation that the OOH has determined does not normally require a bachelor’s degree to perform. If this is the case, the employer should ensure that the appropriate occupation is used for the LCA and the employer should also consider submitting an expert opinion evaluating both the job duties of the proffered position and the education and experience of the beneficiary. Lastly, the employer may explain how its proffered position is analogous to similar jobs that either the OOH or case law has found to be specialty occupations. If one uses job postings by other employers requiring the same bachelor’s degree, USCIS can discount such evidence if the employers who posted such notices were not similar in size as the H-1B petitioning employer. 
Until USCIS properly applies the standards for H-1B specialty occupations determined by the regulations and case law, employers of uncommon or nontraditional H-1B occupations must remain vigilant in their petition filings.  They must keep in mind that when faced with a nontraditional H-1B occupation, the USCIS may look only to the OOH for guidance.  Lastly, attorneys should provide adequate advice and warning regarding the filing of H-1B petitions for such nontraditional occupations and to prepare employers for fickle and nonsensical RFEs. Finally, attorneys must advise their clients that they must be prepared to seek administrative and even judicial review of erroneous denials.

November 9, 2014


By Gary Endelman and Cyrus D. Mehta

For courage--not complacency--is our need today--leadership--not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.
Senator John F. Kennedy’s speech accepting the 1960 Democratic nomination for President
Ever since the Democrats got a drubbing in the midterm elections, questions remain about the fate of immigration reform. President Obama had promised to reform the system through executive action after the election. The question is whether he will still do it despite the Republican Party gaining decisive control over both the Senate as well as the House. Last Friday, November 7, 2014, President Obama defiantly said that he would take executive action on immigration despite howls of protests from Republican leaders. They threatened that Obama’s unilateral action in the face of defeat in the midterm election would derail reform immigration legislation.
The authors believe that executive action ought not “poison the well, a term that has been oft repeated by the GOP against Obama’s proposed executive action, although it dare be said that the well no longer contains any water! If the President has authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act to take executive action in order to improve the decrepit immigration system, we do not see how it would usurp on Congress’s authority or violate the Separation of Powers doctrine. We have shown in Two Aces Up President Obama’s Sleeve To Achieve Immigration reform Without Congress: Not Counting Family Members And Parole In Place that the President can comprehensively reform the immigration system as part of his inherent authority. There is also sufficient ambiguity in many provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act that beg reinterpretation so that they can bring ameliorative relief to millions. A government agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute is entitled to deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984)—often abbreviated as “Chevron deference”.  When a statute is ambiguous in this way, the Supreme Court has made clear in National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005), the agency may reconsider its interpretation even after the courts have approved of it. 
Thus, there is no need for the Republicans to feel threatened by Obama’s proposed executive actions. If they do desire to pass immigration reform legislation, they can always do so and can even improve on the administrative measures that Obama can possibly implement. After all, executive action will always be limited and is no substitute for legislation. The President would only have the authority to defer the deportation of non-citizens who meet certain deserving criteria; he cannot issue them green cards or create new visa categories without Congressional action.  The President may also have authority to reinterpret ambiguous provisions, such as INA section 203(d) so that family members are all counted as a single unit rather than separately, thereby reducing or even eliminating much of the crushing backlogs in the family and employment-based preferences.  Indeed, Obama’s executive action could be conditioned on Congress passing meaningful immigration reform legislation, upon which such action can be withdrawn. Subsequent immigration legislation from Congress can also incorporate some of the administrative measures, such as not counting family members separately. The notion of not counting family already exists in S. 744, which was passed by the Senate in a bipartisan manner in June 2013, and which the House has never taken up. Indeed, the House can still vote on this measure today and can pass comprehensive immigration reform even before Obama acts.
The question is whether the GOP is ready to pass immigration legislation. The real reason that S. 744 was not taken up in the GOP controlled House, even prior to the midterm elections, was the dislike that many House members in legalizing millions of undocumented people who have deep ties with the United States and who are also part of American families. This dislike is grounded in nativist tendencies that many GOP House members have shown, and who receive support from xenophobic organizations such as NumbersUSA and Federation for American Immigration Reform. Even if President Obama gives the new GOP Congress time to enact immigration legislation, they may never be able to do so because of the nativist element within the party that will always be opposed to any immigration measures save border security and tough immigration enforcement.
Executive action on immigration is hardly novel.  After Castro took power in Cuba, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson paroled in more than 900,000 Cubans.  Seven years later, Congress signified its approval through enactment of the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966.  In recent decades, when emergencies erupted and humanitarian crises presented themselves, Presidents of both political parties have not hesitated to act on their own initiative outside the customary channels of legislative activity, often to protect large numbers of vulnerable immigrants from deportation. This has happened over 20 times since the mid-1970’s.  In almost all such instances, the Congress subsequently ratified such executive orders with appropriate legislation. This is, for example, what happened at the close of World War II when President Truman allowed 250,000 European refugees to enter or remain in the United States; three years later, in 1948, Congress enacted the Displaced Persons Act, allowing 400,000 additional admissions. In April 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War, President Ford asserted his parole authority to sanction the evacuation of 200,000 South Vietnamese. Further congressional approval of President Ford’s executive order came in 1980 with enactment of the Refugee Act making possible the resettlement of 1.4 million Indochinese people. That same year, President Carter took in 130,000 Mariel Cubans who eventually obtained “Cuban-Haitian entrant status” under President Reagan.  Six years later, the Immigration Reform and Control Act made these Cuban-Haitian entrants lawful permanent residents of the United States. The next year, Attorney General Meese ordered the legacy INS not to remove some 200,000 Nicaraguans and, a little after that, extended similar protection to 190,000 Salvadorans seeking to escape from the horrors of civil war. Ten years after Attorney General Meese first acted, Congress made possible their adjustment of status. In 1989, following Tiananmen Square, the Bush Administration granted Deferred Enforced Departure to 80,000 Chinese students studying here; three years later, Congress paved the way for their green card status through the Chinese Student Protection Act. The point is always the same and remains instructive today: Executive Action in immigration is always a prelude to congressional legislation, not a substitute for it nor a barrier to its enactment.
President Obama is also in a bind now and of his own doing. He had promised to take executive action well before the midterm elections, but delayed doing so after being persuaded by Democratic Senators who were facing defeat such as Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan, and who in any event lost on November 2, 2014. Obama’s delay in reforming the broken immigration system through executive action thus backfired. The authors believe that had he taken immigration action prior to the election, it may have energized some of his base who could have turned up in the election. Perhaps, Mark Udall of Colorado may not have lost if he had been less ambivalent about immigration,   and if Obama had been able to implement a major historic immigration initiative. The deferred action initiative for immigrant youth prior to the Presidential election in 2012 certainly helped Obama’s victory. Obama had promised immigration reform to the Hispanic community and has to live up to that promise in order to secure his legacy, and to improve the chances of Democratic Presidential candidates in 2016. It would be harder for him to implement administrative immigration reform now that his party has lost control of the Senate, but he still has the authority to do so and he must.
The political imperative for executive action is undeniable. According to an analysis of census data by the Center for American Progress, the Latino population in America increased by 43% in the first decade of the 21st century.  This year, 24.8 million Latinos were eligible to vote; in terms of eligible voters, they accounted for 11.3% of the entire population.  Over the next four years, experts anticipate that more than 4 million Latino voters will be added to the rolls. This is a 17% increase in time for the 2016 election. The potential impact in key battleground states could be decisive. In Florida alone, projections by the Center for American Progress are that 600,000 Hispanics (as compared to 125, 000 new Anglo voters) will be eligible to vote in the next presidential election. In Texas, a state without which it would be virtually impossible for the GOP to win the White House, roughly 900,000 new Hispanic voters are expected to join the electorate by 2016, washing away the projected Anglo voter increase of 185,000.  Remember also that more than 90% of Latinos under age 18 are US citizens and that 800,000 Latinos become voter eligible each year as the Anglo share of the American electorate continues to fall each election cycle
There is a political opportunity here for the Republicans if they can recognize it. The re-election of two Hispanic Republican Governors - Susan Martinez in New Mexico and Brian Sandoval in Nevada - show that the Hispanic vote can no longer be taken for granted.  Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott won 44% of the Hispanic vote in thumping Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis by 30 points. In Georgia, Republican Governor Nathan Deal rode to re-election in no small part on the basis of 47% of the Hispanic vote while Senator-elect David Perdue defeated his Democratic challenger Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, having earned 42% of the Hispanic vote. In an election eve poll by Latino Decisions,  some 67% of those surveyed revealed that immigration was either the most or one of the most important issues. For those political junkies interested in a state by state breakdown, we offer this also for their reading pleasure. If the Republicans recognize that they can woo the Hispanic electorate in their favor  in light of these recent trends, it would be in their best interest to focus on passing comprehensive immigration legislation even while Obama takes executive action.
In 1924, in a vain effort to tap down the anticipated political influence of surging Jewish and Catholic immigrant populations from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Republican Party created a national origins quota using 1890 as a baseline population year to increase Protestant migration from Northern and Western Europe.  This remained in effect until its abolition in 1965. But, it did not work. The children and grandchildren of those disfavored ethnic and religious groups who had already made it to the New World before the gates closed did not forget this slap in the face and became the cornerstone of a New Deal coalition that swept the Democratic Party to national victory in 5 straight presidential elections. For the Republican Party to block President Obama now would be to repeat that historic mistake and consign itself to minority status on the presidential level for decades to come. It would be a political miscalculation of epic proportions. The stakes are no less high for the Democrats. No longer competitive in the states of the Old Confederacy, if they want to retain the electoral college advantage and popular vote majority they have enjoyed in the last 6 presidential elections, the Democratic Party must seize and hold the high ground in  the key states of Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico as well as retain their dominant position in California. Much as civil rights has spelled their political irrelevance in the Old South, immigration can be their salvation in the battleground swing states where the Hispanic vote is and will remain the path to power. Both political parties have a vested interest in a robust embrace of immigration reform. For America’s sake, let us devoutly wish that they realize it. 

(Guest author Gary Endelman is the Senior Counsel at Foster)

October 26, 2014


The best way for a great nation of immigrants such as America to showcase its richness and diversity is through fine ethnic restaurants. A better appreciation of different cuisines can also foster tolerance and social harmony. Cities and towns become more interesting and thrive if they have restaurants with diverse cuisines. For such restaurants to exist, though, there needs to be an immigration policy that would allow restaurants to access foreign specialty chefs. This unfortunately is not the case. The United States Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) views applications for chefs under the limited and narrowly drawn nonimmigrant visa categories with a jaundiced eye. One such pathway for chefs is the L-1B visa for specialized knowledge employees who are being transferred from a foreign entity to a qualifying US entity.  The Brazilian restaurant chain Fogo de Chao successfully brought in 200 specialty chefs on the L-1B visa, when the USCIS changed its mind and denied one of their visas. The restaurant appealed the denial. 
On October 21, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in  Fogo de Chao v. DHS, No. 13-5301, skewered the USCIS for denying the L-1B visa to a Brazilian churrasqueiro or gaucho chef.  Fogo de Chao contended that it sought to recreate for its customers in the United States an authentic churrascaria experience, and it did so by employing a number of gaucho chefs from Brazil who learned this style of cooking first hand by growing up in the Rio Girande do Sul region and through training and at least two years of experience in Fogo de Chao’s Brazilian restaurants. A gaucho chef who possessed this knowledge would be capable of i) preparing and cooking five to six skewers of meat on an open grill; ii) circulating through the dining room to carve meats for guests; iii) educating those guests about both the cuts of meat being served and gaucho culinary and cultural traditions, and iv) monitoring the estimated future demand for food over the course of the evening. 
The key issue in Fogo was whether a foreign national chef could gain such specialized knowledge through one’s own cultural traditions, upbringing or life experience. The USCIS, including its Administrative Appeals Office, held that one’s own cultural upbringing falls within the realm of general knowledge rather than specialized knowledge, and thus such a chef would not qualify for an L-1B visa. The Court of Appeals in Fogo disagreed with the USCIS’s  rather wooden application of the law. (Many immigration practitioners like me will take great delight in the scolding given to the USCIS for  being so wooden as we have experienced this tendency first hand!) The Fogo Court held that there was nothing in INA section 214(c)(2)(B) which precludes culturally acquired knowledge as a form of specialized knowledge. That INA section defines specialized knowledge in a rather circular way, as follows: 
…an alien is considered to be serving in a capacity involving specialized knowledge with respect to a company if the alien has a special knowledge of the company product and its application in international markets or has an advanced level of knowledge of processes and procedures of the company   
A government agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute is entitled to deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984)—often abbreviated as “Chevron deference”. Most are deterred from seeking review of a “wooden” decision in federal court to challenge an erroneous decision of the USCIS because of the Chevron deference the court will give to the government’s interpretation of a particular visa statutory provision.  The Fogo Court  gave no such deference because the USCIS regulation at 8 CFR section 214.2(l)(1)(ii)(D) merely parroted the statutory L-1B definition in the same circular manner, and a parroting regulation deserves no deference. Gonzales v Oregon, 546 US 243, 257 (2006). Instead, the Court applied the lower standard under Skidmore v. Swift & Co, 323 U.S. 134 (1944) where the weight accorded to an administrative interpretation or judgment “depends upon the thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements, and all those facts which give it power to persuade, if lacking power to control.”   Even under the lower Skidmore standard, the Fogo Court held that the Administrative Appeals Office lacked the power to persuade that it could categorically exclude cultural knowledge as a basis for specialized knowledge. 
Also noteworthy in Fogo  was  the government’s  dismissal of  the relevance of the economic hardship the restaurant  would suffer if it had to train another employee to perform the gaucho chef’s proposed duties. The Fogo Court disagreed, emphasizing that economic inconvenience is sometimes the most concrete evidence that can be used to determine whether knowledge is specialized. According to the Fogo Court: “Consideration of evidence of this type provides some predictability to a comparative analysis otherwise relatively devoid of settled guideposts….That specialized knowledge may ultimately be a ‘relative and empty idea which cannot have plain meaning’ not a feature to be celebrated and certainly not a license for the government to apply a sliding scale of specialness that varies from petition to petition without explanation. Suddenly departing from policy guidance and rejecting outright the relevance of Fogo de Chao’s evidence of economic inconvenience threatens just that.” Id. at 28 (citations omitted). 
Although Fogo applied to a Brazilian gaucho chef, it can arguably be applied to other occupations involving specialized knowledge. Skills gained through certain cultural practices may be relevant in determining specialized knowledge in other settings, such as Japanese management techniques. Similarly, acquiring deep knowledge in a particular software application through another employer can equip the L-1B visa applicant with specialized knowledge that can stand out in comparison to others. Moreover, demonstrating economic hardship as a way to prove specialized knowledge has gained more force after Fogo. The 1994 Puleo Memorandum was resurrected in Fogo, which endorsed a dictionary definition of the terms “special” and “advance” rather than solely tether specialized knowledge to the company’s products or processes. Fogo has also paved the way to argue that the USCIS’s interpretation of specialized knowledge does not deserve Chevron deference.   Finally, Fogo ought to potentially have more precedential value than other circuit court decisions since under  28 U.S.C. §1391(e)(1)(B) a petitioner could seek review in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as the Administrative Appeals Office is located in the District of Columbia.

In recent times, the USICS has had the upper hand in L-1B visa adjudications by literally reading specialized knowledge out of the statute. Fogo  thus comes as a breath of fresh air and should hopefully temper the USCIS’s zeal in “woodenly” debarring specialized knowledge workers who can otherwise bring great value to America. We all need to forcefully deploy the hidden nuggets in Fogo to restore the more commonsensical definition of specialized knowledge. 

October 20, 2014


By David A. Isaacson

In my previous post Burning Down the House: The Second and Third Circuits Split on Whether Arson Not Relating to Interstate Commerce is an Aggravated Felony, I raised the issue of whether the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Luna Torres v. Holder, No. 13-2498 (August 20, 2014), should have deferred as it did to the decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in Matter of Bautista, 25 I&N Dec. 616 (BIA 2011), after the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had already vacated that decision in Bautista v. Attorney General, 744 F.3d 54 (3d Cir. 2014).  As I was reminded by Matthew L. Guadagno in the comments to that post, it is a conventionally accepted rule that “when a precedent decision of the Board is struck down by a circuit court, that precedent decision continues to be followed by the Board in all other circuits unless the Board renders a new decision.”  But one of the points I had been trying to make in Burning Down the House, although evidently not clearly enough, is that the federal courts should not give deference to the Board’s common practice in this regard.  This follow-up post attempts to clarify my thinking on the matter.
As I noted in Burning Down the House, it seems in some sense disrespectful of the Third Circuit’s decision vacating Matter of Bautista for the Second Circuit to have said, as it did, that “Matter of Bautista . . . governs Luna’s case.”  Arguably, there was no extant decision and judgment of the BIA in Matter of Bautista which could so govern, since it had already been vacated by a court of competent jurisdiction.  The precedential decision in Matter of Bautista, in an important sense, no longer existed by the time of the Second Circuit’s decision.  And while the BIA had reached the same result in its unpublished decision in Luna Torres’s case as in Matter of Bautista, the Second Circuit had previously held, in Rotimi v. Gonzales, 473 F.3d 55, 56 (2d Cir. 2007), that “a nonprecedential decision by a single member of the BIA should not be accorded Chevron deference” (that is, deference under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984)).  Thus, the nonprecedential decision in Luna Torres’s case cannot, under Rotimi, have been what the Second Circuit was deferring to in its opinion.  Deference was evidently given to Matter of Bautista itself, and yet one might reasonably ask why the Second Circuit should have felt itself bound to defer to a precedential decision that had already been vacated by another Court of Appeals.
The general rule, as has been recognized by the Second Circuit and by other courts, is that “vacatur dissipates precedential force,” In re: Bernard Madoff Inv. Securities LLC, 721 F.3d 54, 68 (2d Cir. 2013).  That is, “vacated opinions are not precedent.”  Asgeirsson v. Abbott, 696 F.3d 454, 459 (5th Cir. 2012).  Or, as the Ninth Circuit has put it more emphatically, “a decision that has been vacated has no precedential effect whatsoever.”  Durning v. Citibank, N.A., 950 F.2d 1419, 1424 n.2 (9th Cir. 1991) (emphasis in original).  These opinions referred to the vacating of a federal court decision, not the vacating of a BIA decision, but logically the principle should apply to a vacated BIA decision as well.
To vacate, after all, has been defined as “to annul; to cancel or rescind; to render an act void; as, to vacate an entry of record, or a judgment.”  Matter of Bautista was annulled, was cancelled, was rescinded, by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in a case over which that Court properly had jurisdiction.  It was, one might say, dead, having been killed by a competent authority.  And yet, the Second Circuit in Luna Torres deferred to the BIA’s vacated decision in Matter of Bautista as a precedent nonetheless—perhaps because the argument was not made that it ought not do so.  One might refer to Matter of Bautista, under such circumstances, as a zombie precedent, one which has risen from the grave to walk the earth again even after being killed.
To be sure, a vacated decision can under some circumstances have “persuasive authority” even though it is not binding.  Brown v. Kelly, 609 F.3d 467, 477 (2d Cir. 2010).  The analog of such persuasive authority in the context of a BIA decision under review by a Court of Appeals, however, would be not Chevron deference, but the more limited form of deference given under Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944), to an administrative opinion with the “power to persuade,” Skidmore, 323 U.S. at 140, which some Courts of Appeals have found applicable to non-precedential BIA decisions, as in Ruiz-Del-Cid v. Holder, 765 F.3d 635 (6th Cir. 2014), Siwe v. Holder, 742 F.3d 603, 607 (5th Cir. 2014), and Latter-Singh v. Holder, 668 F.3d 1156, 1160 (9th Cir. 2012).  (The Second Circuit has reserved the question whether unpublished, non-precedent BIA opinions are even entitled to Skidmore deference, for example in Mei Juan Zheng v. Holder, 672 F.3d 178, 186 n.4 (2d Cir. 2012).) Even if a zombie precedent still walks the earth in some form, therefore, it should not have the same force and effect as a precedential opinion that has not been vacated, killed, by a Court of Appeals.
The somewhat obscure question of whether certain arson crimes constitute aggravated felonies is far from the only context in which zombie precedents play a significant role in immigration law.  The decision of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey in Matter of Silva-Trevino, 24 I&N Dec. 687 (A.G. 2008), for example, which altered the long-standing approach for determining whether certain convictions qualified as crimes involving moral turpitude, was vacated by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Silva-Trevino v. Holder, 742 F.3d 197 (5th Cir. 2014).  The American Bar Association has written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to withdraw Matter of Silva-Trevino, but Attorney General Holder appears content to let the process play out in the Courts of Appeals.  (Now that Attorney General Holder has announced his impending resignation, we may eventually get to see whether his successor feels differently.)  So for the moment, under the BIA’s conventional practice, Matter of Silva-Trevino would continue to govern in the circuits whose Courts of Appeals have not yet specifically rejected it.  Although vacated by the Fifth Circuit, Matter of Silva-Trevino may continue its existence as a zombie precedent.  If the Second Circuit, in a future case, were to address an unpublished BIA opinion purporting to rely on Matter of Silva-Trevino, one might expect, based on the Second Circuit’s decision in Luna-Torres, that the Second Circuit would continue to defer to the rule of Matter of Silva-Trevino despite that precedent’s zombie status, rather than refusing under Rotimi to give Chevron deference to the unpublished opinion which had purported to rely on Matter of Silva-Trevino. One might also hope, however, that the Second Circuit would handle the matter differently, if an alternative possibility were brought to its attention.
There is indeed an alternative to respecting zombie precedents, which would still allow the BIA to perform its functions as an administrative agency entitled generally to Chevron deference, while giving more appropriate weight to the actions of a Court of Appeals that has overturned a precedent decision despite such deference.  As discussed in Burning Down the House, the Second Circuit could in Luna Torres have vacated the nonprecedential decision in Luna Torres’s case and remanded to the BIA for the issuance of a precedential decision, just as it had vacated the nonprecedential BIA decision in Rotimi and remanded for the issuance of a precedent decision.  The Court of Appeals would thereby have said to the BIA, in effect, that it should, in light of the Third Circuit’s decision in Bautista, issue a new precedential decision, Matter of Luna Torres.  The BIA could then have determined in this new decision not only whether it continued to stand by its reasoning from Matter of Bautista in light of the Third Circuit’s contrary reasoning, but whether it was troubled by the prospect of its ruling being valid only in some judicial circuits but not others, and whether it might therefore find it appropriate to acquiesce in the Third Circuit’s ruling in the interest of national uniformity.  It does not appear that this possibility was considered by the Second Circuit in Luna Torres.
It is not as though the BIA’s action, when presented with such a choice, would necessarily be foreordained.  Admittedly, the BIA has in some instances made a precedential choice to reaffirm the reasoning of a prior precedent even after its rejection by multiple circuits.  In Matter of E.W. Rodriguez, 25 I&N Dec. 784 (BIA 2012), for example, the BIA reaffirmed Matter of Koljenovic, 25 I&N Dec. 219 (BIA 2010), after its holding regarding the ineligibility of certain Lawful Permanent Residents for waivers of inadmissibility under INA §212(h) had been rejected by multiple Courts of Appeals, and indicated that Koljenovic would continue to be followed in circuits that had not rejected it. However, in some instances, the BIA has also been known to reverse course following rejection of its precedent by one or more Courts of Appeals.
In Matter of Silva, 16 I&N Dec. 26 (BIA 1976), for example, the BIA acquiesced in the Second Circuit’s decision in Francis v. INS, 532 F.2d 268 (2d Cir. 1976), regarding the availability of relief under former INA §212(c) to certain lawful permanent residents who had not departed from the United States following a criminal conviction.  In so doing, the BIA declined to follow its own earlier contrary decision in Matter of Arias-Uribe, 13 I&N Dec. 696 (BIA 1971).
Similarly, in Matter of Marcal Neto, 25 I&N Dec. 169 (BIA 2010), the BIA overruled Matter of Perez Vargas, 23 I&N Dec. 829 (BIA 2005), which had barred Immigration Judges from evaluating the continuing validity of an I-140 petition following the exercise of portability under INA §204(j), after the rejection of Perez Vargas by several Courts of Appeals.  Matter of Perez Vargas had by that time been vacated by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Perez-Vargas v. Gonzales, 478 F.3d 191 (4th Cir. 2007), and thus was already what I have called a zombie precedent.  The conventional view would say that Courts of Appeals should have deferred to Matter of Perez-Vargas until Matter of Marcal Neto was decided; I would argue that after Perez-Vargas v. Gonzales was decided, unpublished decisions relying on Matter of Perez Vargas were no longer entitled to deference, since Matter of Perez Vargas itself no longer existed.  In the end, the BIA did decide to retreat from its zombie decision and adopt the view of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (as well as other Courts of Appeals that had addressed the matter).
In some cases, the BIA might, after a Court of Appeals decision rejecting its analysis of an issue, find some third approach that incorporated the wisdom of the Court of Appeals decision without following it exactly.  In Matter of Alyazji, 25 I&N Dec. 397 (BIA 2011), for example, the BIA overruled Matter of Shanu, 23 I&N Dec. 754 (BIA 2005), in part following its rejection by some circuit Courts of Appeals.  The BIA in Matter of Alyazji did not entirely adopt the theory of those Courts of Appeals that an adjustment of status was simply not an “admission” for purposes of determining deportability under INA §237(a)(2)(A)(i) for conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude committed within five years after the date of admission.  The BIA in Alyazji accepted a similar result in most contexts and retreated from Shanu, however, by holding that the date of admission for purposes of INA §237(a)(2)(A)(i) deportability was “the date of the admission by virtue of which the alien was present in the United States when he committed his crime”—so that the clock would run from a prior admission as a nonimmigrant that had been followed by an adjustment of status, and would not restart anew from the adjustment of status, unless the person being adjudged deportable had adjusted status after entering the United States without inspection (and thus had no prior admission by virtue of which he was present in the United States at the time). Here as well, therefore, the BIA did not simply insist that it would adhere to a prior precedent decision until that precedent decision was rejected by every Court of Appeals or by the Supreme Court, in the way that the conventional view of what I have called zombie precedents seems to suggest.
In a case where the zombie precedent was originally decided by an Attorney General, it seems even less likely that the BIA would continue to follow it in a precedential decision if informed by a Court of Appeals that it had that option.  Matter of Silva-Trevino was a departure by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey from many years of BIA precedent, and there is no apparent reason that the BIA, or current Attorney General Eric Holder, or his successor, should be so enamored of Silva-Trevino following its rejection by multiple Courts of Appeals as to insist on it in a new precedential decision.  A refusal by Courts of Appeals to defer to Matter of Silva-Trevino as a zombie precedent, unless its reasoning were reaffirmed in a precedent decision made free of the original decision’s binding force, might therefore hasten its demise substantially.
We know from fiction such as The Walking Dead and Night of the Living Dead that zombies are not, ordinarily, thought to be especially appealing or worthy beings.  For the reasons explained in this blog, zombie precedents should be given no more respect.  If the BIA wants courts to defer to the reasoning of a precedent decision that has already been given a proper burial by a Court of Appeals, the BIA should be required to afford that reasoning new life through a new precedent decision, which gives proper consideration to the contrary views of the Court of Appeals that vacated the original decision and explains why those contrary views have been disregarded.

October 13, 2014


By Cyrus D. Mehta and David A. Isaacson

The United States has started Ebola screenings at 5 major airports.  Will these screenings really be effective, or are they being implemented by the administration to demonstrate that it is doing something to assuage public fears?  The administration has also been criticized by Republican leaders who are pushing to restrict, if not completely block off, air travel from West Africa. The tragic death of Thomas Duncan in Dallas from Ebola who had flown into the United States from Liberia has further exacerbated these fears. 
While the airport screenings would apply to all travelers from affected West African countries, including U.S. citizens, non-citizens would certainly be more vulnerable. The fears stemming from the Ebola epidemic are redolent of an earlier time when immigrants who travelled to the shores of the United States were processed at Ellis Island and excluded for a host of diseases, notably including the eye infection trachoma. A Marine General recently warned about hordes of Ebola infected immigrants running for the U.S. border, stoking similar fears today. Anti-immigrant groups are using Ebola, along with ISIS, to further their argument that immigrants are dangerous to the United States, and several Republican politicians including former Massachusetts Senator and current New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown, North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis, and Senator Rand Paul, have cited Ebola to support increased border security along the U.S.-Mexico border
Pursuant to section 212(a)(1)(A)(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), aliens who are determined to have a communicable disease of public health significance are ineligible to receive visas and ineligible to be admitted in the United States. By regulation, under 42 CFR 34.2, the term “communicable disease of public health significance” includes “quarantinable communicable diseases as listed in a Presidential Executive Order,” a list which has included Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers since President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13295 in 2003. Under the authority of INA section 232, 8 U.S.C. 1222, aliens arriving in the United States may be subjected to detention and physical and mental examination to determine whether they are afflicted with a condition that would render them inadmissible, such as Ebola. 
Interestingly, however, under INA 232(b) and 42 CFR 34.8, an applicant for admission who was suspected of having Ebola and found inadmissible on that basis, who disputed the finding, could appeal to a board of medical officers. Presumably, even if one has been quarantined after showing signs of being infected but has recovered, he or she ought to be admitted into the United States.  And since INA §212(a)(1) is not among the grounds which can be a basis for expedited removal under INA §235, 8 U.S.C. §1225, this would presumably all take place, even for a nonimmigrant, in the context of regular removal proceedings before an Immigration Judge, unless DHS felt it could argue with a straight face that the nonimmigrant also fell under INA §212(a)(6)(C) or §212(a)(7) and was thus amenable to expedited removal.  The nonimmigrant might, for example, be said to have lied to a consular officer or DHS officer about their illness and thus become inadmissible under INA §212(a)(6)(C)(i). 
A Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR), on the other hand, at least if returning from a trip of less than 180 days and not having committed any crimes or taken any other actions which would otherwise cause them to be treated as an applicant for admission, would not be regarding as seeking admission to the United States, pursuant to INA section 101(a)(13)(C), 8 U.S.C. §1101(13)(C). That is, the LPR would be considered rather as if he or she had never left the United States at all, because under section 101(a)(13)(C), becoming medically inadmissible under section 212(a)(1) doesn’t cause an LPR to be regarded as seeking admission in the way that certain criminal conduct does. So the LPR would be allowed in, if perhaps under quarantine, not necessarily because he or she were admissible but because admissibility is irrelevant for someone who is not an applicant for admission. There does not appear to be any provision in INA section 237, regarding deportability, which would relate to those who become afflicted with contagious diseases after already having been admitted.
An LPR who had been out of the United States for more than 180 days could potentially be in a more troubling situation. Under INA §101(a)(13)(C)(ii), an LPR who “has been absent from the United States for a continuous period in excess of 180 days” is not entitled to the statutory protection against being regarding as seeking admission, so such an LPR could be found inadmissible under INA 212(a)(1)(A)(i) if infected with Ebola. And although a waiver of such inadmissibility is available pursuant to section 212(g)(1) of the INA, that section requires for a waiver of 212(a)(1)(A)(i) inadmissibility that the waiver applicant have a qualifying relative of one of various sorts, unless he or she is a VAWA self-petitioner.  So an LPR absent from the United States for more than 180 days who does not have a spouse, parent (if the LPR is unmarried), son, or daughter who is either a U.S. citizen, or an LPR, or someone who has been issued an immigrant visa, might not be allowed back into the United States after being infected with Ebola, having become an inadmissible applicant for admission and being ineligible for a 212(g)(1) waiver.  
We wonder whether such a loss of LPR status due to an infection would be constitutional, but we know that according to the Supreme Court, long-term absences from the United States can strip returning residents of some of their constitutional protections. The regrettable decision in Shaughnessy v. Mezei, 345 U.S. 2006 (1953), which upheld the refusal to admit a returning resident without a hearing and his resulting indefinite detention on Ellis Island, has never been overturned (though its practical effect with regard to the permissible length of detention under current statutes was limited by Clark v. Martinez, 543 U.S. 371 (2005)), and Mr. Mezei had lived in the U.S., apparently lawfully although before the INA of 1952 was enacted and the modern LPR status created, for many years before his 19-month absence. An LPR who is absent from the United States for more than 180 days and becomes infected with Ebola in the meantime may be at risk of becoming the modern Mezei. At the very least, however, the government should be held to the burden of showing such an LPR’s alleged medical inadmissibility by clear, convincing, and unequivocal evidence, as in Woodby v. INS, 385 U.S. 276 (1966), just as LPRs alleged to be inadmissible on other bases have been found entitled to the protection of the Woodby standard in such cases as Ward v. Holder, 733 F.3d 601 (6th Cir. 2013). (The BIA in Matter of Rivens, 25 I&N Dec. 623 (BIA 2011), has acknowledged that clear and convincing evidence is required to declare an LPR an applicant for admission under INA §101(a)(13)(C), although it reserved judgment on the question whether there is a difference for these purposes between clear and convincing evidence as mentioned in INA §240(c)(3)(A) and clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence as mentioned in Woodby.)

As a practical matter, it is unlikely that any non-citizen found to be infected with Ebola would be turned away on the next flight home, or even paroled into the US for a removal proceeding, as this would expose others to the Ebola virus.  He or she would be quarantined in a hospital and treated in the United States. If this person fully recovers, he or she should be found admissible.  Otherwise, this person will unfortunately under the current state of medical advances in the treatment of Ebola most likely not be alive.
While the United States should not be nonchalant about the spread of deadly infectious diseases such as Ebola, the question is whether screenings at airports are the right way to deal with the problem? Ebola can incubate in a person for up to 21 days before an infected person shows symptoms, as was the case with Mr. Duncan. It has recently come to light that Mr. Duncan’s treatment was less than satisfactory as he was discharged from the hospital when he had a high fever.  There are very few passengers who fly into the United States each day from the three countries that are at the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Blocking off flights from these countries, due to political grandstanding, will hurt these countries’ economies even further, and will have an adverse impact on trade and investment. This will further hinder their efforts to stem Ebola, and one way to stem an epidemic is to keep people working and normal. In addition, perceived fears about who has Ebola can result in racial profiling of people of certain nationalities, resulting in wrongful denial of visas or admission into the United States. 
As a recent editorial in the Washington Post aptly stated, “The answer to Ebola is fighting it there, at the source, not at the U.S. border. No one is protected when a public health emergency is used for political grandstanding.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden sensibly told reporters, “Though we might wish we can seal ourselves off from the world, there are Americans who have the right of return and many other people that have the right to enter this country.”  As The Economist noted in its recent article on the topic that Dr. Frieden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the infectious diseases component of the National Institutes of Health, have explained, “quarantining West Africa would be unwise.  It would weaken governments, trap Americans and spur travellers to move in roundabout ways that make them harder to track.” If the administration believes that screening those who arrive in the United States for Ebola symptoms may be a helpful component of a broader anti-Ebola strategy, it should not taken too far. We must also be careful not to exclude from the United States people who show no real signs of being infected, and accord those who do appear to have been infected full due process to either contest or overcome inadmissibility.