Nothing more poignantly describes the current humanitarian crisis at the Southwest border than a recent New York Times article describing the journey of Alejandro, 8, who came to the United States on his own with only his birth certificate looking for his parents who are somewhere in San Antonio or an aunt in Maryland. The story of an adorable, courageous and resourceful 8 year old braving a dangerous journey in search of his parents will pull at the heartstrings of any parent. 

There may be many reasons for this crisis and what may draw unaccompanied young children to the United States, but one reason for this is our broken immigration system. This system does not allow people accessible pathways to come to the United States legally or gain legal status.  Even those who are here as permanent residents or naturalized citizens have to wait years before their loved ones can join them due to the backlogs in our family and employment-based immigration preferences.  Until recently there was some hope that the House would pass its own version of immigration reform after the Senate passed S. 744 last year. Those hopes have now been dashed

The impetus to preserve family unity is pervasive and exists across all cultures, and so is the deep love that parents have for their children and that children have for their parents. Many of the children fleeing violence in Central American countries are trying to unite with parents living in the United States. However, the broken immigration system does not allow families to unite through legal means Instead of beefing up the border with more enforcement; President Obama can bring some balance to the immigration system through bold administrative measures that will promote family unification in a legal and orderly manner. While there are several proposals on the table, one that resonates is to not count derivative family members in the employment and family preferences. The solution is simple but elegant: Count all members of a family together as one unit rather than as separate and distinct individuals. Do that and systemic visa retrogression, resulting in family members waiting endlessly, will quickly become a thing of the past. 

Not Counting Family Members 

Section 203(d) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is the provision that deals with family members. Let us examine what section 203(d) says: “A spouse or child defined in subparagraphs (A), (B), (C), (D), or (E) of section 1101 (b)(1) of this title shall, if not otherwise entitled to an immigrant status and the immediate issuance of a visa under subsection (a), (b), or (c) of this section, be entitled to the same status, and the same order of consideration provided in the respective subsection, if accompanying or following to join, the spouse or parent.” There is nothing in section 203(d) that explicitly provides authority for family members to be counted under the preference quotas. While a derivative is “entitled to the same status, and the same order of consideration” as the principal, nothing requires that family members also be given numbers. If Congress allocates a certain number of visas to immigrants with advanced degrees, it makes no sense if half or more are used up by family members.  

There is no regulation in 8 Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) instructing what section 203(d) is supposed to be doing. Even the Department of State’s regulation at 22 C.F.R. 42.32 only parrots section 203(d) and states that children and spouses are “entitled to the derivative status corresponding to the classification and priority date of the principal.” 22 C.F.R. 42.32 does not provide further amplification on the scope and purpose of section 203(d). We acknowledge that section 203(d) derivatives are wholly within the preference system and bound by its limitations. They are not independent of numerical limits, only from direct limitations. It is the principal alien through whom they derive their claim who is counted and who has been counted. Hence, if no EB or FB numbers were available to the principal alien, the derivatives would not be able to immigrate either. If they were exempt altogether, this would not matter. There is a difference between not being counted at all, which we do not argue, and being counted as an integral family unit as opposed to individuals, which we do assert. We seek not an exemption from numerical limits but a different way of counting such limits.  

If the Executive Branch wanted to reinterpret section 203(d), there is sufficient ambiguity in the provision for it do so without the need for Congress to sanction it. 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.  Brand X can be used as a force for good. For instance, in  Sciallaba v. Osorio: Does the Dark Cloud Have A Silver Lining, Cyrus  Mehta and David Isaacson propose that notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s recent decision concerning  section 203(h)(3) of the INA, where the Court agreed with the  Board of Immigration Appeal’s (BIA) more restrictive interpretation of this Child Status Protection Act provision in Matter of Wang, 25 I&N Dec. 28 (BIA 2009),  the BIA has the power to reverse Matter of Wang under Brand X. Matter of Wang held that not all children who are unable to protect their age under the Child Status Protection Act can claim the earlier priority date under which their parent immigration to the United States.  

As the plurality opinion in Sciallaba v. Osorio explained in its conclusion:

This is the kind of case Chevron was built for.  Whatever Congress might have meant in enacting §1153(h)(3), it failed to speak clearly.  Confronted with a self-contradictory, ambiguous provision in a complex statutory scheme, the Board chose a textually reasonable construction consonant with its view of the purposes and policies underlying immigration law.  Were we to overturn the Board in that circumstance, we would assume as our own the responsible and expert agency’s role.  We decline that path, and defer to the Board.

Kagan slip op. at 33. 

Thus, when a provision is ambiguous such as section 203(d), the government agency may reasonably interpret the provision in a reasonable manner. In our prior article relating to not counting relatives, Why We Can’t Wait:   How President Obama Can Erase Immigrant Visa Backlogs With A Stroke Of A Pen,,0201-endelman.shtm, we discussed  that  there are admittedly some statutory provisions which might be read as pointing against an interpretation to not count family members. Most notably, it has also been pointed to us that  INA section 202(b) permits a spouse or child to “cross charge” to the foreign state of either of the parents or the spouse to avoid family separation, and this may suggest that derivatives must be individually counted for purposes of the per country cap. Still, this too can be interpreted differently under Chevronand Brand X, namely, that the entire family be counted as single unit to the other spouse or parent’s country. Of course, the statutory provision which militates in favor of such an interpretation is most notably the text of INA §203(d) itself. If this happened, the EB and FB preferences could instantly become “current.” The backlogs would disappear. The USCIS might even have to build a new Service Center!

Expansion of Parole in Place

The very idea of “parole” in section 212(d)(5) of the INA is linked to  allowing deserving aliens to come to the United States for “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” In most cases, we think this only applies to people who are not yet here. Not so. Digging a bit deeper into the INA, we find in section 235(a)(1) this golden nugget: an applicant for admission is “an alien present in the United states who has not been admitted…” Putting all of this together, there is nothing in law or logic that prevents the full embrace and unfettered application of parole to those already in the United States outside the color of law. The invocation of ‘parole in place” is another example of using new interpretive techniques to mine the existing law for greater benefits. It is the antidote to the inability of Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. There should be no concern over a possible infringement of separation of powers for the authority of Congress over the legislative process is being fully respected.  Part of the responsibility of the President to enforce the laws is to adopt an understanding of them that best promotes what Congress had in mind when it passed the law in the first place. Parole in place does precisely that. This is not amnesty. The requirements for obtaining legal status on a permanent basis apply in full. It is merely an attempt to think of the law we have not purely or primarily as an instrument of enforcement but as a platform for remediation of the human condition. Indeed, is this not how law in the American tradition is meant to function?

The creation of new solutions by federal agencies has become the norm rather than the exception in our system of governance if for no other reason that the sheer multiplicity of issues, as well as their dense complexity, defies traditional compromise or achievable consensus which are the hallmarks of Congressional deliberation. They require timely and directed executive action as a formula for keeping present problems from getting worse. This is exactly why Congress authorized the Attorney General to grant employment authorization without terms or limitations pursuant to INA 274A (h) (3)(B), a provision that should be linked with the robust exercise of the Executive’s parole power. The INA leaves the granting of parole completely up to the discretion of the Attorney General, now shifted to the DHS. It is hard to imagine a more open invitation to Executive rule- making to provide when parole can be extended, as there is absolutely nothing in the INA that would contradict a DHS regulation allowing parole in place. Not only is it appropriate for the DHS to formulate immigration policy on highly minute technical issues of surpassing moment such as parole in place, but the Constitution expects that to happen. Indeed, without this, who would do it? Far from crossing the line and infringing the authority of Congress, what we ask the DHS to do augments Congressional prerogative by providing a practical way for them to function.

In addition to not counting derivatives, the Obama Administration can extend parole in place (PIP) that has been granted to military families to all immediate relatives of US citizens, which would allow them to adjust in the US rather than travel abroad and risk the 3 and 10 year bars of inadmissibility under sections 212(a)(9)(B)(i)(I) and (II) of the INA. Such administrative relief would be far less controversial than granting deferred action since immediate relatives of US citizens are anyway eligible for permanent residence. The only difference is that they could apply for their green cards in the US without needing to travel overseas and apply for waivers of the 3 and 10 year bars.

The concept of PIP can be extended to other categories, such as beneficiaries of preference petitions, which the authors have explained in The Tyranny of Priority Dates. However, they need to have demonstrated lawful status as a condition for being able to adjust status under INA section 245(c)(2) and the current memogranting PIP to military families states that “[p]arole does not erase any periods of unlawful status.” There is no reason why this policy cannot be reversed. The grant of PIP, especially to someone who arrived in the past without admission or parole, can retroactively give that person lawful status too, thus rendering him or her eligible to adjust status through the I-130 petition as a preference beneficiary. The only place in INA section 245 where the applicant is required to have maintained lawful nonimmigrant status is under INA section 245(c)(7), which is limited to employment-based immigrants. Family-based immigrants are not so subject. For purposes of section  245(c) of the INA, current regulations already define “lawful immigration status” to include “parole status which has not expired, been revoked, or terminated.” 8 C.F.R. section 245.1(d)(v). Indeed, even if one has already been admitted previously in a nonimmigrant visa status and is now out of status, the authors contend  that this person should be able to apply for a rescission of that admission and instead be granted retroactive PIP. Thus, beneficiaries of I-130 petitions, if granted retroactive PIP, ought to be able adjust their status in the US.

There is also no reason why PIP cannot extend to beneficiaries of employment I-140 petitions. If this is done, would such persons be able to adjust status to lawful permanent resident without leaving the USA? In order to do that, they not only need to demonstrate lawful status, but also  to have maintained continuous lawful nonimmigrant status under INA section 245(c)(7), as noted above.  Is there a way around this problem? At first glance, we consider the possibility of using the exception under INA section 245(k) which allows for those who have not continuously maintained lawful nonimmigrant status to still take advantage of section 245 adjustment if they can demonstrate that they have been in unlawful status for not more than 180 days since their last admission. We would do well to remember, however, that 245(k) only works if the alien is “present in the United States pursuant to a lawful admission.”  Is parole an admission? Not according to INA section 101(a)(13)(B). So, while retroactive PIP would help satisfy the 180 day requirement imposed by INA section 245(k)(2), it cannot substitute for the lawful admission demanded by section 245(k)(1). Even if an out of status or unlawfully present I-140 beneficiary who had previously been admitted now received nunc pro tunc parole, the parole would replace the prior lawful admission. Such a person would still not be eligible for INA section 245(k) benefits and, having failed to continuously maintain valid nonimmigrant status,  would remain unable to adjust due to the preclusive effect of section 245(c)(7). Similarly, an I-140 beneficiary who had entered EWI and subsequently received retroactive parole would likewise not be able to utilize 245(k) for precisely the same reason, the lack of a lawful admission. Still, the grant of retroactive PIP should wipe out unlawful presence and the 3 and 10 year bars enabling this I-140 beneficiary to still receive an immigrant visa at an overseas consular post without triggering the bars upon departure from the US. Thus, while the beneficiary of an employment-based petition may not be able to apply for adjustment of status, retroactive PIP would nevertheless be hugely beneficial because, assuming PIP is considered a lawful status, it will wipe out unlawful presence and will thus no longer trigger the bars upon the alien’s departure from the US.

Our proposal to grant PIP retroactively so that it erases unlawful presence can also assist people who face the permanent bar under section 212(a)(9)(C) of the INA. If PIP can retroactively erase unlawful presence, then those who entered the country without inspection after accruing unlawful presence of more than 1 year will not trigger the bar under this provision if the unlawful presence has been erased.

One of the biggest contributors to the buildup of the undocumented population in the US has been the 3 year, 10 year and permanent bars.  Even though people are beneficiaries of immigrant visa petitions, they do not wish to risk travelling abroad and facing the bars.  Extending PIP to people who are in any event in the pipeline for a green card would allow them adjust status in the US or process immigrant visas at consular posts, and become lawful permanent residents. These people are already eligible for permanent residence through approved I-130 and I-140 petitions, and PIP would only facilitate their ability to apply for permanent residence in the US, or in the case of I-140 beneficiaries by travelling overseas for consular processing without incurring the 3 and 10 year bars. PIP would thus reduce the undocumented population in the US without creating new categories of relief, which Congress can and should do through reform immigration legislation. 

Achieving Something Close to Comprehensive Immigration Reform Without Congress

Not counting family members and expanding parole in place can be a potent combination for nearing comprehensive immigration reform administratively in the face of Congressional inaction. The waits in the EB and FB preferences will disappear, and family members waiting abroad can unite with their loved ones more quickly and need not be forced to take the perilous path across the Southwest border in desperation. The expansion of PIP to beneficiaries of approved I-130 and I-140 petitions would allow them to obtain lawful permanent residence, rather than being stuck in permanent limbo due to the 3 and 10 year bars. After removing the obstacle of the bars, the grant of lawful permanent residence would be more rapid as there would be no backlogs in the FB and EB preferences, and loved ones from abroad can unite with newly minted immigrants in the United States through an orderly and legal process. 

Our proposals fall squarely within the mainstream of the American political tradition, animated by the spirit of audacious incrementalism that has consistently characterized successful reform initiatives. We acknowledge that immigration reform passed by Congress would solve more problems in a fundamental way. We seek less dramatic but no less meaningful advances through the disciplined invocation of executive initiative only because these are the ones that can be achieved sooner and with greater predictability. Our justifiable zeal for immigration reform must not blind us to the benefit of more moderate proposals. We are confident that future progress will follow in a way that minimizes disruption and maximizes acceptance. We hold fast to the distinction between prudence and absolutism, between incremental reform and revolutionary upheaval. In the long run, the American experience has been characterized more by the former than the latter and it has led to a fruitful stability that has been the envy of the world.

(Guest writer Gary Endelman is the Senior Counsel of FosterQuan)


In both February and May of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit did something that it appears not to have done in an immigration case in more than fifteen years, and that is rare for other courts to do in such cases as well.  In Nguyen v. Holder, on February 14, 2014, and Efstathiadis v. Holder, on May 20, 2014, the Second Circuit chose to certify questions of state law about which it was uncertain to the highest court of the relevant state – New York in Nguyen, and Connecticut in Efstathiadis — rather than seeking to answer those questions itself.  This is at least a notable coincidence given the historical rarity of such certification in immigration cases, and merits watching to see if it is the beginning of a broader trend.

The issue in Nguyen involved the validity, under New York law, of a marriage between an uncle and his half-niece.  The petitioner, Huyen V. Nguyen, had been admitted to the United States in 2000 as a conditional permanent resident based on her marriage to Vu Truong, a U.S. citizen.  Her joint I-751 petition to remove those conditions, filed in 2002, was ultimately denied by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in 2007 because she was the half-niece of her husband—that is, her grandmother was also her husband’s mother.  USCIS concluded that this marriage was incestuous and void, and an Immigration Judge (IJ) reached a similar conclusion in removal proceedings, holding that a New York statute which voids a marriage between “an uncle and a niece” also applies to a marriage between a half-uncle and a half-niece.  On appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) affirmed the IJ’s conclusion that “a marriage between a niece and a half-uncle is invalid under New York law.”  Nguyen, slip op. at 4.

The Second Circuit, however, was not sure that the BIA and IJ were correct. The relevant New York statute, N.Y. Domestic Relations Law §5, voids as incestuous a marriage between
  1. An ancestor and a descendant;
  2. A brother and sister of either the whole or the half blood;
  3. An uncle and niece or an aunt and a nephew.

N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law §5, quoted in Nguyen, slip op. at 6.  Subsection 2 of the statute, regarding siblings, specifically includes relationships “of either the whole or the half blood”, but subsection 3 does not.  As the Second Circuit noted, “two cases from New York’s intermediate appellate courts,” that is,Audley v. Audley, 187 N.Y.S. 652 (N.Y. App. Div. 1921), and In re May’s Estate, 117 N.Y.S.2d 345 (N.Y. App. Div. 1952), aff’d, 305 N.Y. 486 (1953), “hold that marriages between half-nieces and half-uncles are void for incest notwithstanding the omission of the ‘whole or the half blood’ language from subsection (3) of the statute.”  Nguyen, slip op at 6.  However, this holding is drawn into question by dicta in In re Simms’ Estate, 26 N.Y.2d 163 (1970), a decision of the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court.  As the Second Circuit explained:

In Simms, the Court of Appeals did not decide the question of statutory interpretation that is before us here, see id. at 167, but it nevertheless cast doubt upon the analysis given by the Appellate Division in Audley. TheSimms opinion observed that the omission of the phrase “whole or half blood” from the applicable statutory language was troublesome given the inclusion of that language in the statute’s immediately preceding interdiction of marriages between brothers and sisters, and further noted that “it seems reasonable to think that if the Legislature intended to prohibit marriages between uncles, nieces, aunts and nephews whose parents were related to the contracting party only by the half blood, it would have used similar language.” Id. at 166. The Court of Appeals further opined that 

[i]f the Legislature had intended that its interdiction on this type of marriage should extend down to the rather more remote relationship of half blood between uncle and niece, it could have made suitable provision. Its failure to do so in the light of its explicit language relating to brothers and sisters suggests it may not have intended to carry the interdiction this far.

Id. While the Court of Appeals’s analysis in Simms can fairly be called dicta, it nonetheless gives us pause in considering the continued vitality of Audley’s interpretation of subsection (3).

Nguyen, slip op. at 8-9.  If, as Simms suggested, marriages between a half-uncle and a half-niece are actually permitted under New York law, then Huyen Nguyen’s marriage would have been valid and the removal proceedings against her would need to be terminated.

Rather than attempting to predict how the New York Court of Appeals would decide this outcome-determinative issue of New York law, the Second Circuit decided to certify the question to the New York Court of Appeals, allowing that court to provide the answer. As the Second Circuit explained, there are criteria established in case law for such certification:

Before exercising our discretion to certify the question before us to the New York Court of Appeals, we must satisfy ourselves that the question meets the following criteria: 1) it must be determinative of this petition; 2) it must not have been squarely addressed by the New York Court of Appeals and the decisions of other New York courts must leave us unable to predict how the Court of Appeals would rule; and 3) the question must be important to the state and its resolution must require value‐laden judgments or public policy choices.

Nguyen, slip op. at 10.  The Second Circuit determined in Nguyen that these criteria were met. The New York State Court of Appeals appears to agree, as it has already accepted the certification in Nguyen and included it on its list of certified questions pending before that court, by an order reported at 22 N.Y.3d 1150 (2014).  Once the New York Court of Appeals answers the certified question, the Nguyen case will return to the Second Circuit for a final ruling.

In Efstathiadis, decided three months after Nguyen, the issue was not one of state family law, as in Nguyen, but one of state criminal law.  Petitioner Charalambos Efstathiadis was a lawful permanent resident of the United States, having immigrated to the US in 1967.  In 2005, he pled guilty to four counts of sexual assault in the fourth degree under Connecticut General Statute (CGS) §53a-73a(a)(2), which criminalizes subjecting “another person to sexual contact without such other person’s consent.” Under the related definitional provision at CGS §53a-65(3), “sexual contact” is defined as contact “with the intimate parts of a person not married to the actor for the purpose of sexual gratification of the actor or for the purpose of degrading or humiliating such person.”  Efstathiadis, slip op. at 3.  Mr. Efstathiadis was placed in removal proceedings and ultimately found deportable under INA §237(a)(2)(A)(ii), 8 U.S.C. §1227(a)(2)(A)(ii), on the basis that each of his convictions was for a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT), and that they did not arise out of a single scheme of criminal misconduct.  

In attempting to determine whether a conviction for sexual assault in the fourth degree under CGS §53a-73a(a)(2) was indeed a CIMT so as to support Mr. Efstathiadis’s removal, the Second Circuit found itself stymied by uncertainty regarding the mens rea, that is, “the degree of mental culpability with which a defendant committed the acts underlying a conviction,” that was required under the Connecticut statute with regard to the element of lack of consent of the victim. Efstathiadis, slip op. at 11.  Based on the text of the statute, some case law applying the statute as written, and the model jury instructions, it appeared that there might be no mens rea requirement at all—that with respect to lack of consent, the crime might be a strict-liability offense, where it was not necessary for the government to prove any particular mental state of the defendant. However, the decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court in State v. Smith, 554 A.2d 713 (Conn. 1989), addressing a different provision of law relating to sexual assault in the first rather than fourth degree, could potentially be read to imply that a reasonable mistake of fact as to consent was a valid defense, meaning that some culpable mens rea would effectively be required for a conviction.  

The question of what if any mens rea or “evil intent” was required for a conviction was potentially key to the determination whether the crime was a CIMT, since a CIMT has been variously described as requiring “a vicious motive or corrupt mind,” or “[a]n evil or malicious intent,” and Second Circuit case law has indicated that “corrupt scienter is the touchstone of moral turpitude” and that “it is in the intent that moral turpitude inheres.” Michel v. I.N.S., 206 F.3d 253, 263 (2d Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted),quoted in Efstathiadis, slip op. at 14.  Moreover, as the Second Circuit pointed out, while the statute at issue in Efstathiadis does at least have some mens rea requirement insofar as the sexual contact must be committed “for the purpose of sexual gratification of the actor or for the purpose of degrading or humiliating [the victim],” this is not necessarily dispositive, because “the intent to receive sexual gratification, standing alone, is not evil.”  Efstathiadis, slip op. at 14.  Thus, the mens rearequirement, or lack thereof, with respect to the lack of consent element was significant.  But the Second Circuit could not definitively determine whether such a mens rea requirement existed, and if so, what it was.

In Efstathiadis as in Nguyen, the Second Circuit therefore decided to certify the question that was puzzling it to the highest court of the relevant state.  In addition to being potentially dispositive, the Second Circuit said, the question of the mens rea requirement with regard to lack of consent in a sexual assault case had significant policy implications, since “[w]hether or not Connecticut imposes strict liability for intentional sexual touching without consent implicates important policy concerns,” Efstathiadis, slip op. at 21. The Second Circuit therefore certified the following two questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court: 
  1. Is C.G.S. § 53a‐73a(a)(2) a strict liability offense with respect to the lack of consent element?
  2. If C.G.S. § 53a‐73a(a)(2) is not a strict liability offense with respect to the lack of consent element, what level of mens rea vis‐à‐vis that element is required to support a conviction?

Id. at 22.  It does not appear that the Connecticut Supreme Court has yet decided whether to accept or reject the certification in Efstathiadis.

The certification of two questions of state law in immigration cases by the Second Circuit in a single year (a year that is not yet half over) is noteworthy, given the historical rarity of such certifications.  Before 2014, the last time the Second Circuit appears to have sought to certify a question of state law in an immigration case was in 1998.  In Yesil v. Reno  and Mojica v. Reno, two of the consolidated cases addressed in Henderson v. INS, 157 F.3d 106 (2d Cir. 1998), the Second Circuit attempted to certify a question relating to the existence of jurisdiction over a non-New-York District Director of the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service under the New York “long arm” statute. The New York Court of Appeals respectfully declined the certified questions, Yesil v. Reno, 705 N.E.2d 655 (N.Y. 1998), and the appeals were subsequently withdrawn after the parties settled, as explained in Yesil v. Reno, 175 F.3d 287 (2d Cir. 1999).  

Yesil and Mojica appear to be the only immigration cases, before this year, in which the Second Circuit attempted certification of questions of state law. Historically, the Second Circuit has more commonly utilized certification of questions of state law in other legal settings, but not in the immigration context.  Nor is the technique especially common among other courts in the immigration context, although it is not entirely unheard of.  

In 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, in the case of Renteria-Villegas v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson Countycertified to the Supreme Court of Tennessee an issue relating to the powers of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County under state law.  That lawsuit was filed by a U.S. citizen who had twice allegedly been subjected to an investigation of his immigration status following his arrest, pursuant to an October 2009 Memorandum of Agreement between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Metropolitan Government which he believed to be illegal.  The Supreme Court of Tennessee accepted the certified question, and ruled in an October 4, 2012, decision that the agreement was not illegal as a matter of state law.  

Earlier, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska had attempted to certify a somewhat similar question regarding the powers of a local government body in the Keller v. City of Fremont litigation, regarding a local anti-immigrant ordinance somewhat similar to that struck down by the Third Circuit in Lozano v. City of Hazleton.  However, in November 2010 the Supreme Court of Nebraska declined the certified question in Keller, just as the Court of Appeals of New York had done years earlier in Yesil andMojica. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ultimately upheld that Fremont ordinance as a matter of federal law, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently denied certiorari in the case, allowing the Eighth Circuit’s decision to stand.

Going back further into U.S. legal history, there is also the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Elkins v. Moreno, 435 U.S. 647, which certified to the Maryland Court of Appeals the question whether Maryland state law prevented G-4 nonimmigrants from acquiring domicile in that state.  But overall, certification of questions of state law has been fairly rare in the immigration context, not only in the Second Circuit but elsewhere, at least until this year.

It is possible that the reappearance of certification in two unrelated Second Circuit immigration cases this year is merely a coincidence, but the possible trend merits further observation. Certification can be, in many areas of the law, a valuable tool for determining the proper answer to a question of state law rather than leaving that question to speculation by a federal court.  If the increased use of certification in immigration cases is indeed a trend in the Second Circuit, it is a potentially promising one for some immigrants whose cases may turn on questions of state law, and for their attorneys.

Scialabba v. Cuellar de Osorio: Does the Dark Cloud Have a Silver Lining?

By Cyrus D. Mehta and David A. Isaacson

On June 9, 2014, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Scialabba v. Cuellar de Osorio. (The case had previously been known as Mayorkas v. Cuellar de Osorio before Lori Scialabba was appointed as Acting Director of USCIS, replacing former Director Alejandro Mayorkas.)  The Court ruled in Cuellar de Osorio that the BIA’s previous interpretation of the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA), as set out in Matter of Wang, 25 I&N Dec. 28 (BIA 2009), was a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute.  In particular, the Court deferred to the BIA’s narrow interpretation of INA §203(h)(3), 8 U.S.C. §1153(h)(3), severely limiting which derivative beneficiaries of visa petitions could retain their parents’ priority dates.  This is a disappointing decision, but the details of the opinions in Cuellar de Osorio do leave room for some hope.

As discussed in several severalpreviousposts onthis blog, INA §203(h)(3) provides for “automatic conversion” in the cases of certain beneficiaries of preference visa petitions whose age, even as adjusted under the CSPA to account for the time taken to process the visa petition, is determined to be above 21.  Some principal and derivative beneficiaries, according to the statute, will under these circumstances have their petitions automatically converted to the appropriate category, and retain the original priority date.  The question in Cuellar de Osorio and Matter of Wang was who gets to benefit from this automatic conversation.  The en banc Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Cuellar de Osorio, as well as the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Khalid v. Holder, had argued for a broad interpretation which allowed all derivative beneficiaries to benefit, as at least some of the language of the statute seemed to suggest.  The BIA in Matter of Wang, as well as the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Li v. Renaud and an earlier Ninth Circuit panel decision in Cuellar de Osorio, had chosen narrower approaches, which in effect allowed automatic conversion and priority date retention only for the principal and derivative beneficiaries of family 2A preference petitions, not the derivative beneficiaries of other categories of preference petitions.  The Supreme Court took the Cuellar de Osorio case to resolve this disagreement.

There was no single Supreme Court majority opinion in Cuellar de Osorio, but a total of five justices accepted the BIA’s narrow interpretation of the statute as set out in Matter of Wang, for two different sets of reasons.  The plurality opinion was written by Justice Kagan, and supported by Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg.  Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Scalia, authored an opinion concurring in the judgment, but for somewhat different reasons.  Justices Sotomayor and Alito authored dissenting opinions; Justice Sotomayor’s dissent was joined by Justice Breyer in its entirety and by Justice Thomas except with regard to one footnote.

To appreciate the different opinions in Cuellar de Osorio, it is helpful to review the text of §1153(h)(3), quoted in the opinion of the Chief Justice and in a footnote to the plurality opinion.  It states:

If the age of an alien is determined under paragraph [1153(h)](1) [the CSPA provision the adjusts the age of a preference petition beneficiary to compensate for elapsed processing time] to be 21 years of age or older for the purposes of subsections (a)(2)(A) and (d) of this section, the alien’s petition shall automatically be converted to the appropriate category and the alien shall retain the original priority date issued upon receipt of the original petition.

The different opinions in Cuellar de Osoriotook different views of what Congress may have meant in prescribing that “the alien’s petition shall automatically be converted to the appropriate category and the alien shall retain the original priority date issued upon receipt of the original petition.”

Justice Kagan’s plurality opinion described §1153(h)(3) as “Janus-faced”.  Kagan slip op. at 14.  The first half of the provision, she said, looks toward a broader interpretation of the sort supported by the Ninth Circuit, but the second half describes a remedy, automatic conversion, which Justice Kagan and the plurality saw as most naturally applying only when the new petition to which automatic conversion would occur would have the same petitioner and same beneficiary.  Given this “internal tension”, Justice Kagan said, the BIA was 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”.  As Justice Kagan and the plurality saw it, there are “alternative reasonable constructions” of §1153(h)(3), “bringing into correspondence in one way or another the section’s different parts.  And when that is so, Chevron dictates that a court defer to the agency’s choice—here, to the Board’s expert judgment about which interpretation fits best with, and makes most sense of, the statutory scheme.”  Kagan slip op. at 14.  As the plurality opinion explained in its conclusion:

This is the kind of case Chevron was built for.  Whatever Congress might have meant in enacting §1153(h)(3), it failed to speak clearly.  Confronted with a self-contradictory, ambiguous provision in a complex statutory scheme, the Board chose a textually reasonable construction consonant with its view of the purposes and policies underlying immigration law.  Were we to overturn the Board in that circumstance, we would assume as our own the responsible and expert agency’s role.  We decline that path, and defer to the Board.

Kagan slip op. at 33.

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Scalia, reached essentially the same conclusion as the three-Justice plurality led by Justice Kagan, but for different reasons.  Concurring in the judgment, the Chief Justice wrote that he did not see “conflict, or even internal tension . . . in section 1153(h)(3).”  Roberts slip op. at 2.  Rather, he “d[id] not think the first clause points to any relief at all.” 3.  Instead, he described the second clause of §1153(h)(3) as “the only operative provision.” 3-4. In that only operative provision, he took the view that beyond certain basic requirements, “Congress did not speak clearly to which petitions can “automatically be converted.”  Id. at 4.

The dissenting Justices, in contrast, were of the view that even if there was some ambiguity in the statute, it was not sufficient to justify the interpretation that the Board adopted in Matter of Wang.  While “Section 1153(h)(3) is brief and cryptic” and “may well contain a great deal of ambiguity, which the [BIA] is free to resolve,” Justice Alito wrote, it was at least clear that “the alien’s petition shallautomatically be converted to the appropriate category and the alien shall retain the original priority date issued upon receipt of the original petition.”  Alito slip op. at 2 (emphasis added in original).  The BIA, he contended, was “not free to disregard this clear statutory command.”  Id.  Justice Sotomayor, as well, argued in her dissent that because a reading of the statute was possible that gave effect to both the automatic conversion language and the statute’s broad description of who was eligible for automatic conversion, that reading should have been followed.  Because there were potential interpretations that “would treat §1153(h)(3) as a coherent whole,” she said, “the BIA’s construction was impermissible.”  Sotomayor slip op. at 9

On the surface, the Supreme Court’s decision in Cuellar de Osorio is obviously disappointing for a great many immigrants who were hoping to recapture priority dates of petitions initially filed for their parents through automatic conversion.  Aged-out children who have waited patiently for many years for their parent’s priority date to become current are told that they must now go back to the beginning of the line on a new petition filed by their parent under the Family 2B preference—which for most of the world has a backlog of more than seven years as of the June 2014 Visa Bulletin, and is backlogged many years more for those chargeable to Mexico or the Philippines.  While it is an unfortunate decision from that perspective, however, Cuellar de Osorio does contain some seeds of hope for better outcomes in the future.

The first seed of hope, with respect to §1153(h)(3) itself, is the latitude which the Court has provided for the executive branch to reconsider its decision.  Justice Kagan’s plurality opinion is careful to state that “we hold only that §1153(h)(3) permits—not that it requires—the Board’s decision to so distinguish among aged out beneficiaries.”  Cuellar de Osorio slip op. of Kagan, J., at 21.  The concurring opinion of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia is not as explicit in this respect, but it describes its disagreement with the plurality as involving “a different view of what makes this provision ambiguous under Chevron” rather than going to the question whether the provision is ambiguous at all. Indeed, the Chief Justice criticized Justice Kagan’s “Janus-faced” metaphor of §1153(h)(3). “But when Congress assigns to an agency the responsibility for deciding whether a particular group should get relief, it does not do so by simultaneously saying that the group should and that it should not. Direct conflict is not ambiguity, and the resolution of such a conflict is not statutory construction but legislative choice.” Id. at 2.   Thus, a majority of the Court agrees that the meaning of §1153(h)(3) is an ambiguity subject to Chevron deference, rather than suggesting, as the Second Circuit had done in Li v. Renaud, that a narrow reading of §1153(h)(3) is compelled by the statute.

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, the Court’s description of §1153(h)(3) as an ambiguous statute subject to Chevrondeference to the BIA’s interpretation implies that the BIA could, even after Cuellar de Osorio, reverse its position in Matter of Wang.  So too could the Attorney General, on whose behalf the BIA ultimately acts, go against Matter of Wang and adopt a broader interpretation of §1153(h)(3).  As the INA provides, within the executive branch, “determination and ruling by the Attorney General with respect to all questions of law shall be controlling.”  INA §103(a)(1), 8 U.S.C. §1103(a)(1).  Ultimately, it is within the power of Attorney General Holder to save those beneficiaries who have waited in line for many years, and now find themselves pushed to the back of a new line that may be decades long.  Whether or not these results of the Wang interpretation affirmed in Cuellar de Osorio may be legally permissible, they are not desirable as a policy matter, and the Supreme Court has left the Attorney General the power to recognize this.  In light of the Obama Administration’s many noteworthy administrative reform measures in the face of Congressional inaction, the provisional waiver rule and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals being such examples, a broader interpretation of §1153(h)(3) would be consistent with these efforts.

Of course, Congress too could fix the problem, by redrafting the statute to make it clearer that all derivative beneficiaries whose adjusted age is over 21 can retain the principal beneficiary’s priority date.  This was done in section 2305(d)(5)(C) of  S. 744, the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, which unfortunately has not been brought to a vote in the House of Representatives.  But if Congress continues not to act, the executive branch has the power to remediate the unfairness of requiring those who have waited in line with their parents for many years to go to the back of a new line and start over from the beginning.

Another policy argument in favor of such a reversal of Matter of Wang which would be worth the consideration of the BIA or the Attorney General, or for that matter Congress, is that the Matter of Wang interpretation of §1153(h)(3), now affirmed in Cuellar de Osorio, reintroduces some of the arbitrariness which the enactment of the CSPA had sought to avoid.  The age-adjustment process under INA §203(h)(1), 8 U.S.C. §1153(h)(1), in effect subtracts from the adjusted age of a visa applicant the time during which a visa petition was pending.  If the adjusted age of a derivative applicant is under 21, the CSPA as interpreted in Wang and Cuellar de Osorio will allow the applicant to utilize a principal beneficiary parent’s priority date; otherwise, the benefit of the priority date will be lost entirely.  But that means that children whose parents were petitioned for on the same date, and whose parents’ priority dates become current simultaneously, may be treated in dramatically different fashion depending on how long it happened to take USCIS to process the petition on behalf of their parents during the time that no visa number was available.  The broader interpretation of §1153(h)(3) rejected by the BIA in Matter of Wang would have reduced this arbitrariness, by enabling even a child whose parent’s petition happens to be processed relatively quickly, and whose CSPA-adjusted age is therefore over 21 when the priority date becomes current, to enjoy some benefit from that petition and its priority date.

The potential positive implications of Cuellar de Osorio beyond the CSPA context are also worth considering.  As previously discussed in postsonthis blog and articles by co-author Cyrus D. Mehta and Gary Endelman regarding “The Tyranny of Priority Dates” and “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Through Executive Fiat”, the executive branch’s authority under Brand X can potentially be used as a force for good in the immigration context.  This occurred for example in Matter of Douglas, 26 I&N Dec. 197 (BIA 2013), where, as discussed in one of the aforementioned blog posts, the BIA chose not to follow an unfavorable decision by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit regarding procedures for acquisition of citizenship under former section 321(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.  If, as the plurality in Cuellar de Osorioindicates, tension between the apparent meaning of different statutory provisions is sufficient to activate the Chevronand Brand X authority of the executive branch even if one could conceive of a potential interpretation which could harmonize the different provisions (at the cost of some awkwardness), this will expand the power that the executive branch may have to use Chevron and Brand X for pro-immigration ends.

Take, for example, the proposal in “The Tyranny of Priority Dates” that the executive branch re-interpret INA §203(d) so that derivative family members do not consume additional visa numbers beyond those taken up by the principal beneficiaries of visa petitions, thus freeing up a greater quantity of visa numbers for use by others.  As discussed in that article, there are admittedly some statutory provisions which might be read as pointing against such an interpretation.  But there are also statutory provisions which pull in favor of such an interpretation, most notably the text of INA §203(d) itself when it states that a derivative family member is “entitled to the same status, and the same order of consideration provided in the respective subsection, if accompanying or following to join, the spouse or parent.”  INA §203(d), 8 U.S.C. §1153(d).  If family members must be provided with separate visa numbers, then how can one fulfill this command for the family members of the principal immigrant who receives the last available visa number in a fiscal year for a particular category—will they not inevitably be subject to a delay in their “order of consideration” that is inconsistent with §203(d)?  This tension, interpreted in line with the version of Chevron deference implemented by the Cuellar de Osorioplurality, would provide sufficient authority to reinterpret the priority-date system in a way that could significantly reduce the current backlogs in the visa preference categories.

Remarkably, Cuellar de Osorio was not decided on the usual conservative-liberal ideological lines as with many Supreme Court decisions. The pairings of justices who decided one way or the other are rather odd much like combining a full-bodied red Malbec with a delicate white fish –  Ginsburg and Scalia were part of the plurality that denied relief to children while Sotomayor and Thomas vigorously dissented. The outcome in this case is neither a liberal nor a conservative victory.  This could potentially give President Obama through his Attorney General some political cover if they decided to use Brand X as a force for good by reversing Matter of Wang. Of course, the government caused this in the first place by litigating all the way to the Supreme Court. Sceptics will rightly question why the government would change course after having gone so far. However, the Attorney General, through the BIA, has reversed course before. For example, in Matter of Silva, 16 I&N Dec. 26 (BIA 1976), the BIA acquiesced to Francis v. INS, 532 F.2d 268 (2d Cir. 1976), and allowed 212(c) relief for LPRs in deportation proceedings who had not previously departed and returned, despite its earlier contrary holdings in Matter of Francis and Matter of Arias-Uribe, 13 I&N Dec. 696 (BIA 1971). If Congress fails to  enact Congressional reform, it is likely that the Administration will endeavor to provide relief through further administrative measures. Our blog provides the Administration with a way to do so for children who were left out of the American Dream solely because they were unlucky to have aged out.