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In this case arising from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), the Ninth Circuit held that Etumai Felix Mtoched's 1994 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon in violation of 6 N. Mar. I. Code § 1204(a) was a deportable crime involving moral turpitude. It further found that ground of deportability could retroactively apply to Mr. Mtoched even though he was convicted of the offense before the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) took effect in CNMI. Finally, it held that Mr. Mtoched could not apply for a 212(h) waiver of inadmissibility because he was already in the U.S. and was not eligible to adjust status.

Concerning the first question of whether Mr. Mtoched's assault with a deadly weapon conviction was a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT), the panel found the statute of conviction was "divisible into three distinct subparts, all involving bodily injury to another person with a dangerous weapon: (1) threaten to cause, (2) attempt to cause, or (3) purposely cause." In reaching this conclusion, however, the panel appears to have assumed divisibility from the text of the statute. Its opinion failed to address prior precedent that holds an offense is divisible only if a jury must unanimously agree on which of multiple alternative elements a defendant committed. See Rendon v. Holder. The Mtoched panel simply ignored that precedent even though the Ninth Circuit had declined to rehear Rendon en banc more than a month earlier.

The panel also held that the CIMT ground of deportability could be applied to Mr. Mtoched even though he was admitted to CNMI, the crime was committed, and he was convicted before the U.S. immigration laws applied to CNMI. As the government agreed, Congress was not explicit in applying the INA to CNMI retroactively. The court therefore considered whether applying the change to Mr. Mtoched "would impair rights [he] possessed when he acted, increase [his] liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed." It determined that Mr. Mtoched's conviction made him deportable under the law that existed in CNMI prior to the INA, and the change also did not make him ineligible for any form of discretionary relief that he was previously eligible for. Both before and after the change, his only hope to remain in CNMI was an exercise of prosecutorial discretion. The fact that the CNMI Attorney General did not move to deport him and the federal government did does not make the change in law retroactive.

At the end of the decision, the panel held, as the Board of Immigration Appeals did, that Tmoched was not eligible for 212(h) because he was present in the U.S. and was not eligible to adjust status. It added a cryptic note saying that he was not eligible to adjust status because he was present in the U.S. as "a citizen of Palau who may enter the United States as a non-immigrant under the section 141 of the Compact of Free Association with the Republic of Palau." It is true that persons admitted without a visa, which is apparently how Mr. Tmoched was admitted, are ineligible to adjust--unless they are eligible for adjustment of status as an immediate relative (spouse or minor child under 21 of U.S. citizen, or parent of U.S. citizen 21 years of age or older). Thus, the real problem appears to be that Mr. Tmoched did not have one of those relationships.

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The Ninth Circuit held that the right to counsel provided by 8 C.F.R. § 292.5(b) does not apply to "applicants for admission" at primary or secondary inspection and held that a lawful permanent resident may be treated as an applicant for admission based on the inspecting officer's conclusions.

Generally, returning lawful permanent residents are not considered to be applicants for admission unless an exception at 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(13)(C) applies. Here, the exception was that the LPR was found to have engaged in illegal activity after departure from the U.S.: he allegedly attempted to smuggle his niece into the country upon return. The officers detained him 28 hours and interrogated him, obtaining a sworn statement admitting to the smuggling. At his removal hearing he sought to suppress the statement. He argued he had a right to counsel because he could not be considered an arriving alien until he received a final administrative determination of that issue by the immigration judge and Board of Immigration Appeals.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, finding that the respondent's argument was "not consistent with the language of the statute or with logic." Really? The officer usually has nothing more than suspicion until the officer interrogates the returning resident--here after more than 24 hours in detention with no access to counsel. Thus, it is the denial of counsel that permits the government to establish that a returning resident is an arriving alien--not vice versa.

As an interesting corollary, I think most CBP officers would be surprised to learn that returning residents have a right to counsel during primary and secondary inspection IF they cannot be considered arriving aliens under § 1101(a)(13)(C). In other words, I don't think an LPR who is potentially deportable for a conviction but not inadmissible for it (e.g., a firearms offense) will be given an opportunity to have his attorney present at the airport. We'll see if that changes with this decision.

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The Ninth Circuit held that conducting an individual hearing on the merits of a cancellation of removal application by videoconferencing does not necessarily violate the constitutional right to due process or the statutory right to a fair hearing. It might, though, depending on the circumstances of a particular case. The court focused on the constitutional due process right without addressing the statutory right under 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(b)(4)(B).

The court held that whether a particular hearing by videoconferencing violates due process depends on the degree of interference caused by the technology and the degree of prejudice that resulted. It found the noncitizen in this case failed to establish that the use of videoconferencing may have affected the outcome.

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For a review of the potential arguments against the use of videoconferencing, read the American Immigration Council's advisory at http://www.legalactioncenter.org/sites/default/files/docs/lac/lac_pa_121203.pdf. The memo was last updated in 2003, but it still has useful suggestions.

In this case, the government unlawfully removed the respondent before the removal order was administratively final, i.e., while the case was on direct appeal to the Board. The regulations provide that a removal order shall not be executed during the period for filing an appeal to the Board (unless appeal is waived) or while the appeal is pending. The regulations also provide that the departure of a respondent from the U.S. while a direct appeal is pending constitutes a withdrawal of the appeal. 8 C.F.R. § 1003.4. DHS argued that even its removal of the respondent "in error" is a departure that strips the Board of jurisdiction over the appeal. The Board rejected that argument and found, "Fundamental fairness dictates that an unlawful act by the DHS should not serve to deprive us of jurisdiction to review an alien’s appeal."

On the merits of the appeal, the Board held that a conviction for being an "accomplice" to an aggravated felony offense makes an alien removable for an aggravated felony if the conviction is for aiding and abetting the principal offender. The respondent in this case was convicted under an Arkansas statute that defined accomplice more broadly to include "a person who (1) solicits another to commit an offense, (2) aids another in the commission of the offense, or (3) fails to prevent the commission of the offense, so the Board held it was not categorically an aggravated felony. The reviewable record of conviction, however, made it clear the respondent assisted the principal at the scene of the crime. The conviction thus satisfied the modified categorical analysis.

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The Ninth Circuit held that the deadline for special motions to reopen proceedings to apply for 212(c) relief under St. Cyr was a constitutionally sound procedural rule.

Luna filed late and had argued that the deadline “irrationally disallows any alien not made aware of the time limitation from seeking a reopening.” The Ninth Circuit noted, though, that the rule was published in the Federal Register and that persons are presumed to know the law.

Further, the Ninth Circuit rejected Luna's argument for tolling of the deadline because the record did not show due diligence. It left open the possibility of tolling under other circumstances, though.

Read the opinion at http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2011/09/19/08-71086.pdf.

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