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I don't usually post about new regulations on this blog, but the recent expansion of the provisional waiver (I-601A) process is too important not to mention.  The process allows immigrants to get a decision on an application for a waiver of inadmissibility before they travel abroad to their immigrant visa interview.  This shortens the time they are separated from U.S. citizen and/or permanent resident family members and also provides assurance that they will be able to return to those family members. USCIS also eliminated the reason-to-believe basis for denial of a provisional waiver, which benefits some applicants while creating a trap for others.

Expansion of Immigrants Eligible for Provisional Waiver

The provisional waiver process previously was open only to persons immigrating as the spouse, child, or parent of a U.S. citizen.  Effective August 29, 2016, any immigrant visa applicant may apply who would need a waiver of inadmissibility  upon departure from the U.S. after unlawful presence of more than 180 days or unlawful presence of one year or more.  That includes all family-based applicants, employment-based applicants, and diversity visa applicants.

Although the process is open to all immigrant visa applicants, applicants still need a qualifying relative. To obtain an approved I-601A, the applicant must establish that requiring him or her to wait outside the U.S. for 3 or 10 years would cause extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent. (Hardship to children does not count, at least not directly.)  That means that an applicant for an employment-based immigrant visa must still have a citizen or resident spouse or parent to benefit from the process.  The same is true for persons immigrating through a citizen brother or sister or through the diversity visa lottery.

Further, applicants need to be aware that the provisional waiver forgives only departure after unlawful presence of more than 180 days (the 3 year bar) and unlawful presence of one year or more (the 10 year bar).  An I-601A does not forgive any other ground of inadmissibility.  For example, it does not forgive entry without admission after April 1, 1997, after a previous removal order or previous unlawful presence of more than one year.  It also does not forgive inadmissibility for a criminal conviction, misrepresentation to obtain an immigration benefit, or other misconduct.  The provisional waiver, even if approved, will be automatically revoked if the consular officer finds the applicant inadmissible on any other basis than departure after unlawful presence.

Elimination of Reason to Believe Basis for Denial

Previously, USCIS would deny I-601A provisional waiver applications where there was reason to believe that the applicant would be found inadmissible on any other basis.  With the new regulations, USCIS has ended that practice.  The change eliminates a source of frustration and confusion, since USCIS's application of the reason to believe standard has varied over the few years the process has been in effect.  In some cases, USCIS has denied otherwise admissible applicants and approved otherwise inadmissible applicants.

The elimination of the reason to believe basis for denial, however, also creates a dangerous pitfall for applicants who apply without the benefit of expert immigration advice.  Applicants who file their own application or who use the services of a notario or less-experienced attorney may obtain an approved I-601A and then depart for the visa interview only to find that they are inadmissible on a basis other than unlawful presence.  That would result in revocation of the approved I-601A.  At best, an immigrant in that situation then would be able to file an I-601 waiver application and wait several months outside the U.S. for a decision on it.  At worst, the applicant may be found inadmissible on a basis that does not permit a waiver and the applicant would then be stuck outside the U.S. with no legal means of immigrating.

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The Ninth Circuit held in Avendano-Hernandez v. Lynch that the Board of Immigration Appeals acted within its proper discretion to hold that the petitioner's felony conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) was a particularly serious crime that disqualified her from receiving withholding of removal.

Ms. Avendano-Hernandez is a transgender woman who requested withholding of removal to Mexico because of repeated acts of rape and sexual assault she experienced there by police, the military, and her own family.  The immigration judge found her testimony credible, but denied her withholding of removal based on her conviction under California Vehicle Code section 23153(b) for driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or greater and causing bodily injury to another person.  She had crashed into another car and the other driver experienced neck and back pain, as well as minor pain to the arm and knee.  She received probation and a jail term of 364 days for this conviction.  She later received a 2 year sentence to imprisonment for a violation of her probation after she was deported and returned illegally without reporting to her probation officer.

The immigration judge and Board found that the conviction was a particularly serious crime that disqualified Ms. Avendano Hernandez from receiving withholding of removal to Mexico based on her experiences of rape and sexual assault there.  The Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction to review this discretionary decision is limited to determining whether the agency considered the facts and circumstances of the crime under the correct legal standard.  The Ninth Circuit found that the immigration judge did improperly consider the probation violation in assessing the seriousness of the underlying crime, but that the Board corrected the immigration judge's error on its de novo review.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that the Board applied the proper legal standard to the facts, so it upheld the decision.

The Ninth's decision then went on to find that Ms. Avendano Hernandez is entitled to deferral of removal under the Convention Against Torture, a less durable form of protection from removal.

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In Castro-Lopez the Board of Immigration Appeals held that an applicant for special rule cancellation of removal for NACARA must establish 10 years of continuous residence from the date of the most recently incurred ground of inadmissibility or deportability, rather than the first incurred ground. The Board reached this conclusion because it was the rule for suspension of deportation under the pre-1996 law and Congress intended NACARA special rule cancellation to approximate that law. So, Castro-Lopez was found ineligible for the relief because his most recently incurred ground of inadmissibility resulted from a 2012 controlled substance conviction.

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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 Board of Immigration Appeals held in this case that the service of a Notice to Appear in Removal Proceedings (NTA) does not stop the accrual of time toward eligibility for cancellation of removal if the NTA was never filed with an immigration court.

In Ordaz-Gonzalez, the former INS served the NTA on the respondent in 1998. Ordaz-Gonzalez would not have been eligible for cancellation of removal as a non-permanent resident (INA 240A(b)(1) cancellation) if the INS had then filed that NTA with the immigration court because he could not have satisfied the requirement that he have 10 years of continuous physical presence in the U.S. prior to commencement of removal proceedings (certain other events also stop the accrual of time). However, INS never filed that NTA. Instead, in 2004 the successor agency, DHS, served Ordaz-Gonzalez with a new NTA, which it did file with the court. By that time, he alleged that he did have more than 10 years of continuous presence. The immigration judge disagreed. The immigration judge found that the service of the first NTA stopped his accrual of continuous residence.

The Board sustained Ordaz-Gonzalez's appeal of that decision. The Board found the statutory language did not specifically address Ordaz-Gonzalez's unusual situation, noting that Congress probably would not have anticipated it. (Rather, Congress's intent in adding the stop-time rule was to remove an incentive for dilatory tactics in removal proceedings where the NTA was filed with the court.) The Board found the best reading of the statute in Ordaz-Gonzalez's unusual situation was to find that an unfiled NTA does not stop time. Otherwise, even service of an invalid or defective NTA would stop time, as well as service of an NTA where the respondent prevailed in the prior removal proceedings.

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The Board of Immigration Appeals finally capitulated in this decision to what it recognized was the "overwhelming circuit court authority" that an aggravated felony conviction does not bar a waiver of inadmissibility under 212(h) unless the applicant has "previously been admitted to the United States as an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence."  In other words, a 212(h) waiver of criminal inadmissibility is available if a permanent resident adjusted to that status in the U.S., but not if she entered the U.S. on an immigrant visa.  Nine circuit courts had found that conclusion compelled by the plain language of the statute, so the Board gave up the fight and withdrew from its decisions in Matter of E.W. Rodriguez, 25 I&N Dec. 784 (BIA 2012) and Matter of Koljenovic, 25 I&N Dec. 219 (BIA 2010).

Admittedly, though, one can see why the Board sought to have the aggravated felony bar apply to permanent residents regardless of whether they adjusted status or entered on an immigrant visa: There seems to be no rational basis for distinguishing between the two groups.  Without a rational basis for the distinction, denying 212(h) to permanent residents who entered the U.S. on immigrant visas would violate due process.  I am sure that will be the next argument for intrepid immigration lawyers like myself--the 212(h) aggravated felony bar should not apply to immigrant visa entrants either!

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In an unnecessary and disingenuous decision, the Ninth Circuit held in Torres-Valdivias v. Holder that the Board of Immigration Appeals correctly applied the heightened discretionary standard of Matter of Jean to deny adjustment of status to an immigrant convicted of misdemeanor sexual battery, even though the immigrant was not inadmissible for the conviction.

The Jean heightened discretionary standard requires a showing of extraordinary circumstances before granting a waiver of inadmissibility to an alien who has committed a violent or dangerous offense. Matter of Jean, 23 I&N Dec. 373 (A.G. 2002).  Jean was a refugee who had been convicted of manslaughter for shaking a baby to death.  When the former INS put her in removal proceedings, she applied for adjustment of status as a refugee.  She did not dispute that she was inadmissible to adjust status, but requested a discretionary 209(c) waiver to forgive her inadmissibility.  The immigration judge denied the waiver in the exercise of discretion.  The Board reversed and granted the waiver and adjusted her to permanent resident status.  The Attorney General at the time, John Ashcroft, disagreed with the Board and overruled it in a published opinion.  He established a new discretionary standard, which headnote 4 of the decision summarizes:

Aliens who have committed violent or dangerous crimes will not be granted a discretionary waiver to permit adjustment of status from refugee to lawful permanent resident pursuant to section 209(c) of the Act except in extraordinary circumstances, such as those involving national security or foreign policy considerations, or cases in which an alien clearly demonstrates that the denial of status adjustment would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship. Depending on the gravity of the alien’s underlying criminal offense, such a showing of exceptional and extremely unusual hardship might still be insufficient.

Matter of Jean, 23 I&N Dec. 373 (A.G. 2002).  Thus, if you have committed a violent or dangerous crime, the agency will not grant you a discretionary waiver to adjust from refugee status to permanent resident status without extraordinary circumstances (and even then may not).  A later decision, Matter of K-A-, 23 I&N Dec. 661 (BIA 2004), applied the same standard to asylees who apply to adjust from asylum status to permanent resident status.  No published Board decision, though, has ever applied the Jean standard to other types of applicants for adjustment of status, such as family-based or employment-based applicants.  Those applicants adjust pursuant to section 245 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, rather than section 209.

In an unpublished decision, however, the Board applied Jean to deny Torres-Valdivias's family-based application to adjust status.  It found that his misdemeanor conviction for sexual battery was a violent and dangerous crime that triggered the heightened discretionary standard, even though it did not make him inadmissible.  Torres-Valdivias was not inadmissible because his crime qualified for the petty offense exception--it was a misdemeanor with a sentence to imprisonment of not more than six months.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the Board's decision.

The Board's unprecedented borrowing of a standard is dubious enough in an unpublished decision, but applying the Jean standard to an immigrant who was not inadmissible for his crime was even more questionable.  Remember the language of Jean?  It explicitly applied only to a "discretionary waiver" for inadmissibility (and then only for a refugee).  Torres-Valdivias did not require a waiver, so Jean should not apply.

The heightened standard that does apply to family-based immigrants like Torres-Valdivias is nearly identical to Jean, but by its own terms only applies where the immigrant is inadmissible for a crime and thus requires a waiver of inadmissibility under 212(h).  See 8 C.F.R. 212.7(d).  The regulation that contains this standard provides,

The Attorney General, in general, will not favorably exercise discretion under section 212(h)(2) of the Act (8 U.S.C. 1182(h)(2)) to consent to an application or reapplication for a visa, or admission to the United States, or adjustment of status, with respect to immigrant aliens who are inadmissible under section 212(a)(2) of the Act in cases involving violent or dangerous crimes, except in extraordinary circumstances, such as those involving national security or foreign policy considerations, or cases in which an alien clearly demonstrates that the denial of the application for adjustment of status or an immigrant visa or admission as an immigrant would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship. Moreover, depending on the gravity of the alien's underlying criminal offense, a showing of extraordinary circumstances might still be insufficient to warrant a favorable exercise of discretion under section 212(h)(2) of the Act.

8 C.F.R. 212.7(d).  Thus, only immigrants who require a 212(h) waiver for criminal inadmissibility are subject to the heightened standard under 212.7(d).  And note that part 212.7(d) was issued under the same Attorney General--John Ashcroft--that decided Matter of Jean, and it was issued after the decision in Jean.  See 67 Fed. Reg. 45402, 45404 (Jul. 9, 2002) (proposed rule).  Indeed, the agency stated in the Federal Register that 212.7(d) was intended to codify Jean.  Id.

The Ninth Circuit blithely ignored all of this and affirmed the Board's unpublished decision.  In doing so, it effectively rendered 212.7(d) moot in the Ninth Circuit.  Under Torres-Valdivias, an immigrant may be denied adjustment of status under the heightened standard even where he is not inadmissible, while 212.7(d) only applies if the immigrant is inadmissible for a crime.  If Attorney General Ashcroft intended the interpretation of Jean adopted by the Ninth Circuit, why did he later promulgate a more narrow regulation at 212.7(d)?  The answer is that he did not intend the Ninth Circuit's interpretation.

At the beginning of this article, I made the inflammatory comment that the panel decision in Torres-Valdivias is not only wrong, but disingenuous, so I'll tell you why.  After the initial decision in the case, published on September 5, 2014, the American Immigration Council and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center filed amicus briefs in support of rehearing, and they were both represented by very able attorneys.  I am certain those attorneys raised the arguments summarized above, and perhaps even better ones.  Yet the amended opinion issued nine months later still asserted that Jean and K-A- compelled the decision, when in fact they don't and the implication of 212.7(d) is that the decision is entirely wrong.  I expect the panel ignored the arguments because of the bad facts in this case (the victim of Torres-Valdivias's sexual battery was his step-sister, who was four years younger than him).

I would say the opinion is results-oriented, except that this bad law was unnecessary.  There already was and still is a discretionary standard of long pedigree that applies to adjustment applications by all immigrants, admissible and inadmissible: the Board's published decision in Matter of Arai, 13 I&N Dec. 494 (BIA 1970).  Arai held, "Where adverse factors are present in a given application for adjustment of status under section 245, Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended, it may be necessary for the applicant to offset these by a showing of unusual or even outstanding equities."  In other words, the favorable discretionary factors must outweigh the negative factors.  This standard is more flexible and carries less of a presumption toward denial, but it is more than adequate to support the denial of adjustment where appropriate.  In other words, the Board could have denied Torres-Valdivias adjustment under either standard, so the use of the wrong one may have caused no harm here.

Although the panel's decision may not have prejudiced Torres-Valdivias, the problem is that it turned the Board's minor error into a rule of law that will be applied to other cases throughout the Ninth Circuit.  And it is hard to see why it did so.  The prudent course would have been to remand the case to the Board for a reconciliation of JeanArai, and 212.7(d).  That is the Board's job, not the Ninth Circuit's.

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In Matter of Pina-Galindo, the Board found that the respondent was ineligible for cancellation of removal for a non-permanent resident under INA 240A(b)(1) because he had been convicted of two or more offenses with an aggregate sentence to confinement of 5 years or more.

The respondent was put in removal proceedings for being present without admission or parole.  He applied for cancellation of removal based on being physically present in the U.S. for 10 or more years and the hardship that removal would cause to a qualifying relative.  The immigration judge found him ineligible for cancellation because he had multiple alcohol-related convictions, including a conviction for driving while intoxicated for which he received a 10-year sentence. Non-permanent resident cancellation requires, among other things, that the applicant not be convicted of an offense listed at INA 212(a)(2).  Section 212(a)(2) lists several crime-based grounds of inadmissibility, including: crimes involving moral turpitude, controlled substance offenses, and multiple criminal offenses with an aggregate sentence to confinement of 5 years or more.  Pina-Galindo was found ineligible for having multiple convictions with an aggregate sentence to 5 or more years.

The respondent argued that the legislative history indicated that Congress only intended to disqualify applicants with convictions that involved moral turpitude or a controlled substance offense, since the Conference Report stated that only aliens inadmissible under INA 212(a)(2)(A) (the subsection covering crimes involving moral turpitude and controlled substance offenses) would be ineligible for cancellation.  The Board brushed aside that argument by supposing that the Conference Report likely referred only to the most common grounds of disqualification.

The respondent also argued that the language of the grounds of ineligibility for cancellation refer to a singular conviction under 212(a)(2), while multiple convictions are required for an offense to be described under the multiple conviction with 5 year aggregate sentence ground of inadmissibility.  The Board responded that the Dictionary Act (1 U.S.C 1) provides that for any Act of Congress the singular shall include the multiple unless the context requires otherwise.

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The Board held that an immigrant admitted at a port of entry as a conditional permanent resident is subject to the 212(h) aggravated felony bar.   That bar prohibits an immigrant admitted to the United States as "an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence" from applying for a 212(h) waiver of criminal inadmissibility if the alien has been convicted of an aggravated felony after admission.  The question here, though, is whether the bar applies if the immigrant was admitted to the U.S. in lawful permanent resident status on a conditional basis, which occurs if the permanent resident status is based on a marriage entered into less than 2 years before the admission.  

The Board held that the aggravated felony bar does apply to immigrants admitted as conditional residents under the plain language of the Act.  It reached that conclusion because the Act refers to those immigrants as having "obtain[ed] the status of lawful admission for permanent residence," albeit on a conditional basis.  The Board, however, failed to address why the conditional status should not matter.  The requirements to remove that conditional status place these immigrants in a much different situation than immigrants truly admitted to permanent residence in the sense of having the right to reside in the U.S. indefinitely.  Perhaps the distinction does not matter, but the Board should have stated why.

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The Board of Immigration Appeals held here that a respondent's mental health at the time of committing a crime is not a factor in determining whether a conviction is for a particularly serious crime that bars withholding of removal.

In this case, the respondent was convicted of California Penal Code section 245(a)(1) (2004 version), assault with a deadly weapon, and received a two-year sentence to prison.  He has a history of chronic paranoid schizophrenia, which resulted in a finding that he was mentally incompetent during the removal proceedings.  The fact of the conviction, however, indicates he was not found not guilty by reason of insanity during the criminal proceedings.

The Board held that the respondent's mental health circumstances at the time of an offense may not be considered in determining whether the crime is a particularly serious crime that bars withholding of removal.   It reached this conclusion despite acknowledging the well-established rule that it "evaluate[s] the nature of the conviction, the type of sentence imposed, and the circumstances and underlying facts."  The Board's decision makes clear that the "circumstances and underlying facts" concern only those that indicate whether the respondent is a "danger to the community."  In other words, a crime by a mentally ill person can indicate dangerousness to the community just the same as a crime by a person who is not mentally ill.

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