Interpreting Pereira: A Hint of Things to Come?

I haven’t posted for a while.  I’ve been extremely busy, but there was something else: my response to so many recent events has been just pure anger.  Although I’ve written the occasional “cry from the heart,” I don’t want this blog to turn into the rantings of an angry old man.

So I resume posting with a case that provides a glimmer of hope (and, hopefully, a hint of things to come?).  Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, a court generally known for its conservatism, issued an order granting an emergency stay of removal in the case of Manuel Leonidas Duran-Ortega v. U.S. Attorney General.  As is common in such types of grants, the three-judge panel issued a decision consisting of two sentences, granting the stay, and further granting the request of interested organizations to allow them to file an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief.

What made this decision noteworthy is that one of the judges on the panel felt the need to write a rather detailed concurring opinion.  Among the issues discussed in that opinion is the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Pereira v. Sessions (which I wrote about here: on Mr. Duran-Ortega’s case.  As in Pereira, the document filed by DHS with the immigration court in order to commence removal proceedings  lacked a time and date of hearing. In her concurring opinion, Judge Beverly B. Martin observed that under federal regulations, jurisdiction vests, and immigration proceedings commence, only when a proper charging document is filed.  The document filed in Mr. Duran-Ortega’s case purported to be a legal document called a Notice to Appear. But as Judge Martin noted, “The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Pereira appears to suggest, as Duran-Ortega argues, that self-described “notice to appears” issued without a time or place are not, in fact, notice to appears” within the meaning of the statute.

Judge Martin (a former U.S. Attorney and Georgia state Assistant Attorney General) continued that the Pereira decision “emphasized” that the statute does not say that a Notice to Appear is “complete” when it contains a time and date of the hearing; rather, she quotes the Pereira decision as holding that the law defines that a document called a “Notice to Appear” must specify “at a minimum the time and date of the removal proceeding.”  The judge follows that quote with the highlight of her decision: “In other words, just as a block of wood is not a pencil if it lacks some kind of pigmented core to write with, a piece of paper is not a notice to appear absent notification of the time and place of a petitioner’s removal proceeding.”

As this Reuters article reported (   enough immigration judges had a similar reading of Pereira to terminate 9,000 removal cases in the two months between the Supreme Court’s decision and the issuance of a contrary ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals, in which the BIA’s judges, out of fear of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, chose appeasement of their boss over their duty to reach fair and independent decisions.

Judge Martin referenced that BIA decision, Matter of Bermudez-Cota, but stated: “This court need not defer to Bermudez-Cota if the agency’s holding is based on an unreasonable interpretation of the statutes and regulations involved, or if its holding is unambiguously foreclosed by the law...In light of Pereira and the various regulations and statutes at issue here, it may well be the case that deference is unwarranted.”

For those readers who are not immigration practitioners, attorneys with ICE (which is part of the Department of Homeland Security) and the Office of Immigration Litigation (“OIL”) (which is part of the Department of Justice, along with the BIA) have been filing briefs opposing motions to terminate under Pereira using language best described as snarky.  A recent brief fled by OIL called the argument that proceedings commenced with a document lacking a time and date must be terminated under Pereira “an unnatural, distorted interpretation of the Supreme Court’s opinion,” and a “labored interpretation of Pereira.”  A brief recently filed by ICE called the same argument an “overbroad and unsupported expansion of Pereira [which] is unwarranted and ignores the Court’s clear and unmistakable language.”

There is an old adage among lawyers that when the facts don’t favor your client, pound the law; when the law doesn’t favor your client, pound the facts; and when neither the law nor the facts favor your client, pound the table.  I find the tone of the government’s briefs as sampled above to be the equivalent of pounding the table. The government is claiming that to interpret the Supreme Court’s language that “a notice that lacks a time and date is not a Notice to Appear” as meaning exactly what it says is an unnatural, distorted interpretation that is labored and ignores the clear language of the Court.  The government then counters by claiming that the natural, obvious, clear interpretation is the exact opposite of what Pereira actually says.

So although it is just the view of one judge in one circuit in the context of a concurring opinion, it nevertheless feels very good to see a circuit court judge calling out the BIA, OIL, and DHS on their coordinated nonsense.  Three U.S. district courts have already agreed with the private bar’s reading of Pereira, in U.S. v. Virgen Ponce (Eastern District of Washington); in U.S. v. Pedroza-Rocha (Western District of Texas); and just yesterday, in U.S. v. Soto-Mejia (D. Nev.). At this point, this is only cause for cautious optimism.  But as an immigration lawyer named Aaron Chenault was articulately quoted as saying in the above Reuters article, for now, Pereira (and its proper interpretation by some judges) has provided “a brief glimmer of hope, like when you are almost drowning and you get one gasp.”  Well said.

Copyright 2018 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.


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