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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 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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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 Ninth Circuit assumed without deciding that a grant of temporary resident status pursuant to the legalization provision at INA 245A amounted to an "admission." It held, however, that a termination of the temporary resident status (in this case for convictions) returns an alien to the unlawful status held before the grant of temporary resident status. 8 C.F.R. § 245a.2(u)(4). In this case, Hernandez-Arias previously held the status of an alien present without admission or parole. The court held the termination thus returned him to an unadmitted status, which made him vulnerable to removal for being present without admission or parole.

The court rejected Hernandez-Arias' argument that this return to an unadmitted status would result in a "rescission," which the regulations say is not required for termination of status and which did not occur in his case. The court distinguished a rescission from a termination. Using divorce and annulment as a comparison, it held rescission would result in him never having had temporary resident status and deprive him of any benefits of having had that status. Termination simply ends the status and returns him to the status he had before.

As an alien not admitted or paroled (and apparently not eligible for 245(i) adjustment), the court held Hernandez-Arias was not eligible for a 212(h) waiver of inadmissibility for his criminal convictions. It held he therefore was not prejudiced by the failure of the immigration judge in the removal proceedings to advise him of potential eligibility for 212(h). It therefore upheld his conviction in this case for illegal reentry after removal.

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The Board held that an adjustment of status by a respondent who entered the U.S. without inspection was an "admission" and the respondent therefore was deportable for conviction of an aggravated felony "after admission." It disagreed with and distinguished the precedent on 212(h) eligibility, where circuit courts have held an aggravated felony does not disqualify a permanent resident unless he or she was admitted to the U.S. as a permanent resident (not where he or she adjusted to permanent resident status). The Board found it would be absurd to interpret the statute to entirely exempt immigrants who adjusted status from the grounds of deportability, which only apply to persons in and admitted to the U.S.

The Board further found that a sentence enhancement specified in the Manual for Courts-Martial that must be pleaded and proved beyond a reasonable doubt is an "element" that may be examined under the categorical analysis for immigration purposes.

In this case, the Board held a sodomy sentence enhancement for sodomy committed "by force and without the consent of the other person" categorically satisfies the crime of violence aggravated felony definition (if the sentence is to one year or more). It found the conviction satisfied both subsection (a) and subsection (b) of 18 U.S.C. 16. It found it satisfied subsection (a) because it held the conviction had as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another. It also found the offense satisfied subsection (b) because sodomy by force, which requires physical force and lack of the victim’s consent for a conviction, by its nature involves a substantial risk that the perpetrator will resort to intentional physical force in the course of committing the crime.

Interestingly, in a portion of the decision not digested by the Board at the beginning of the case, the Board rejected without much analysis the respondent's argument that he did not receive a sentence to one year or more for any single one of his three sodomy convictions. Apparently, he received a sentence to 18 months on the three counts and it was not clear whether this was a single concurrent sentence (i.e., 18 months on each conviction with the period of imprisonment to run at the same time) or three consecutive sentences (say, three sentences to 6 months each). The Board characterized the sentence as a "general sentence" and cited a 66 year-old Board opinion to find it satisfied the crime of violence aggravated felony definition's requirement of a sentence to one year or more. Due to the paucity of the Board's analysis, though, it is hard to know whether the respondent's argument had any merit. This is unfortunate in a published decision.

Finally, the Board rejected respondent's claim to eligibility for a "stand alone" 212(h) waiver. It held 212(h) is not available unless the applicant is an arriving alien seeking to waive a charge of inadmissibility or an applicant to adjust (or readjust) status to permanent residence. See Matter of Rivas, 26 I&N Dec. 130,
132, 134 (BIA 2013).

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The Ninth Circuit held that the aggravated felony bar to a 212(h) waiver of inadmissibility does not apply to a permanent resident who was admitted to the U.S. from abroad as something other than a permanent resident and then later adjusted status to permanent residence. It, like all of the other circuit courts to have reviewed the question, found this result compelled by the plain language of the statute. Thus, the petitioner here was not barred from seeking a 212(h) waiver of inadmissibility for her crime involving moral turpitude because she entered on a B-2 visitor visa and then adjusted to permanent resident status.

A person who was admitted on an immigrant visa, however, would not be eligible for 212(h) to waive a later criminal ground of inadmissibility. The court also recognized that an adjustment of status would count for the purpose of the 212(h) aggravated felony ground of ineligibility if the person was not inspected and admitted and admitted from abroad--i.e., where the person entered without inspection. It found the language of the statute did not preclude the interpretation of the Board of Immigration Appeals in this circumstance.

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The Board of Immigration Appeals held that a stand-alone 212(h) waiver is not available to a lawful permanent resident unless he is an applicant for admission or files a concurrent application to adjust status. It rejected the immigration judge's decision to grant 212(h) nunc pro tunc to the date of a prior admission to the United States.

Rivas was admitted to permanent resident status in 1998 and then received two separate petty theft convictions in 2001. He traveled abroad on several occasions and was readmitted to the U.S. each time despite his inadmissibility for having two convictions for crimes involving moral turpitude. He later was put in removal proceedings as a deportable alien for having two convictions for crimes involving moral turpitude. He applied for 212(h) as discretionary relief from removal and the immigration judge granted it. DHS appealed and the Board sustained the appeal.

Rivas pointed out DHS should have put him in removal proceedings when he previously applied for admission to the U.S. after travel abroad--at which point he undisputably would meet the eligibility criteria. To now hold that he is ineligible for that form of relief (since he apparently did not have a basis to readjust) based on the fortuitous circumstance that DHS was negligent in allowing him back into the U.S. makes no sense. So, the appropriate remedy, as indicated by an earlier Board decision in Matter of Sanchez, 17 I&N Dec. 218 (BIA 1980), is to back-date the grant of the waiver to the date of his earlier erroneous admission.

The Board disagreed, finding that the statute requires the immigrant be an applicant for admission or an applicant for adjustment and that nunc pro tunc relief would impermissibly sidestep that requirement. It said it has to abide by this statutory language to give effect to the clear intent of Congress. The Board described nunc pro tunc relief as a means only to fill a gap in the statutory criteria.

The Board's rationale, however, fails to recognize that the clear intent of Congress is for DHS to put inadmissible immigrants in removal proceedings when they seek admission from abroad. If DHS had done that, Rivas would be eligible for 212(h). Allowing nunc pro tunc relief fills the unanticipated gap of what to do if DHS fails to do its job. Further, permitting a nunc pro tunc 212(h) waiver does not sidestep the statutory language because Rivas was at one point an inadmissible applicant for admission. This is not the case of someone who did not depart the U.S. after becoming deportable.

Of course, the Board's unstated motivation for this decision was likely to avoid setting up an equal protection argument like the one that resulted in Francis extending 212(c) to immigrants who never departed the U.S. The rationale for that decision was that it was unfair to treat immigrants who have departed the U.S. more favorably than immigrants who have not. By holding that neither group is eligible for 212(h) unless they are put in proceedings at the border or apply for adjustment, perhaps the Board hoped to prevent a court decision finding a denial of equal protection. If so, I think it failed. Treating immigrants differently based on the fortuitous circumstance of whether an immigration inspector properly put them in proceedings upon their last arrival to the U.S. or not is just as unfair.

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In this case, the Ninth Circuit provided an important interpretation of the "necessarily rested" limitation in last year's en banc decision in Aguila Montes de Oca. It first, unsurprisingly, held that a conviction for sexual battery under California Penal Code section 243.4(a) is not categorically an aggravated felony for sexual abuse of a minor. Obviously, PC 243.4(a) may be committed against an adult. More importantly, though, it found the conviction was not for sexual abuse of a minor under the modified categorical approach either, despite an allegation in the charging document that the victim was a minor.

Under the modified categorical approach, a court may review record of conviction documents to determine whether an overbroad offense has been narrowed to match a generic federal aggravated definition. Aguila Montes de Oca held that alleged facts in a charging document, or other evidence of the prosecution's theory of the offense, may be used if the eventual conviction "necessarily rested" on them.

In this case, the charging document alleged the victim's date of birth, which would make her a minor at the time of the offense. Sanchez-Avalos pled no contest to the offense and was later put in removal proceedings upon return from a trip to Mexico. The immigration judge found him inadmissible for a crime involving moral turpitude and denied his application for a 212(h) waiver of inadmissibility. The Board dismissed his appeal of the decision, holding that the conviction was an aggravated felony for sexual abuse of a minor that disqualified him from 212(h).

The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the conviction could not have "necessarily rested" on the date of birth allegation in the charging document because the victim's age is irrelevant to the sexual battery charge. It could have obtained a conviction at trial even if the birth date contained a typo and the victim was actually an adult. Thus, this conviction is not an aggravated felony under the modified categorical analysis.

Finally, this decision requires a shout out to the attorney for the immigrant, rock star criminal immigration attorney Michael Mehr.

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Ninth Circuit here added a gloss to its previous decision in Mejia v. Gonzales, 499 F.3d 991 (9th Cir. 2007), which had upheld 8 C.F.R. § 1212.7(d). Section 1212.7(d) requires “extraordinary circumstances” such as “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” for a 212(h) waiver of inadmissibility for an applicant for admission convicted of a violent or dangerous crime. Mejia had found that this was a permissible limitation on the exercise of discretion even though the standard exceeded 212(h)'s threshold requirement of "extreme hardship."

The gloss added by Rivera-Peraza, and the only thing that made this case worthy of publication, was the recognition that the exceptional and extremely unusual hardship required by § 1212.7(d) does not have to be to a qualifying relative. Hardship to the applicant counts for the purpose of the exercise of discretion. The Board recognized that, but found that the hardship was insufficient to outweigh the applicant's armed robbery conviction. The Ninth thus found no error of law and dismissed the petition.

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