On Monday, the Attorney General’s strange decision in Matter of E-F-H-L- had many of us talking well into the night. As background, the BIA published its precedent decision in Matter of E-F-H-L- in 2014. The case involved an immigration judge’s decision that an asylum applicant’s claim was not deserving of a merits hearing. Instead of a hearing at which he would have had the opportunity to testify, present witnesses, file documentary evidence, and present legal arguments, the immigration judge simply denied the case on the written application alone. On appeal, the BIA reached the obvious conclusion that all asylum applicants merit the right to a hearing, and remanded the record back to the immigration judge for that purpose.
Four years later (i.e. this past Monday), Attorney General Jeff Sessions unexpectedly inserted himself into the matter. It seems that by the time the record arrived back in immigration court, the respondent was now eligible to obtain lawful permanent residence based on a relative petition. As such petition is a far more certain and direct route to legal status, and carries greater benefits, the respondent followed the common practice of withdrawing his application for asylum in order to proceed on the visa petition alone. Furthermore, because USCIS (and not the immigration judge) has the authority to decide the visa petition, both the respondent and DHS agreed to administratively close proceedings in order to allow USCIS to adjudicate the petition (which often takes some time) without either having such effort delayed by removal proceedings, or wasting the court’s valuable time by holding unnecessary status-check hearings. Ordinarily, once the visa petition is decided one way or the other, the parties will move the immigration judge to recalendar the case.
However, such cooperation, efficiency, and consideration is apparently not to the AG’s liking. On Monday, he determined that because the matter was remanded for an asylum hearing, but the asylum application was subsequently withdrawn, the Board’s precedent guaranteeing asylum applicants the right to a hearing should for some reason be vacated. He further ordered an end to administrative closure, and that the case be placed back on the IJ’s active hearing calendar, where time and taxpayer money can be wasted on unnecessary hearings, which could possibly delay USCIS in adjudicating the visa petition.
So what does all of this mean? First, Sessions has now done away with a Board precedent decision entitling all asylum applicants to a full hearing. The Board’s original decision in E-F-H-L- cited regulations, statute, the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status, case law, and common sense in reaching such conclusion. The fact that years later, the respondent became eligible for another form of relief in no way negates the Board’s reasoned conclusion.
Additionally, the AG’s action might have a chilling effect on immigration judges. In the past, Attorneys General have certified cases to themselves where they disagreed with a decision reached by the Board. However, I don’t believe an AG has ever before followed a case years later all the way down to the immigration court level and chosen to certify a case because of an action taken by the immigration judge in the normal course of proceedings. Administratively closing a proceeding to allow USCIS to adjudicate a visa petition is standard procedure - DHS agreed to such action. Yet now, immigration judges have to worry that the AG is watching. How quickly will judges administratively close under the same circumstances, even if everyone agrees it is the correct thing to do?
Furthermore, as it is extremely unlikely that Sessions is reviewing every decision every immigration judge is making, someone - in DHS? In EOIR? - is signalling the AG’s office of cases such as this one. Although the immigration courts and BIA are supposed to be neutral, the playing field is not level when the respondent must appeal an unfavorable to the federal circuit courts, whereas DHS can simply ask the Attorney General to reverse a decision of which it disapproves.
Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.