14 Former IJs and BIA Members File Amicus Brief with AG

On February 16, the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP filed an amicus curiae (i.e. “friend of the court”) brief on behalf of 14 former immigration judges and BIA board members with Attorney General Jeff Sessions pursuant to his request in Matter of Castro-Tum.  In that decision, the Attorney General certified to himself an unpublished decision, in which he requested amicus briefs on the following:  (1) whether IJs and the BIA have the authority administratively close cases, and if so, whether the BIA’s precedent decisions “articulate the appropriate standard for administrative closure”  (2) If it is determined that IJs lack such authority, should the AG delegate it, or conversely, if the IJs have such authority, should the AG withdraw it; (3) can the purpose of administrative closure be satisfied through other docket management devices; and (4) if the AG determines that IJs and the BIA lack such authority, what should be done with the cases already closed.

As immigration judges and the BIA have exercised their authority to administratively close cases for decades, the AG suddenly raising these questions on his own would seem to signal his intent to do away with this important docket-management tool.  As background, the respondent in Castro-Tum is an unrepresented, unaccompanied minor.  When he did not appear for a scheduled removal hearing after the immigration court mailed a notice to what it was told was the minor’s address, the DHS attorney requested the immigration judge to order the child removed from the U.S.  However, the IJ had questions concerning the reliability of the mailing address that the government provided to the immigration court, and declined to enter the removal order, administratively closing the proceedings instead.  The DHS attorney appealed.  It should be noted that the appeal did not challenge an immigration judge’s right generally to administratively close cases; the DHS believed that in this particular case, the evidence of record should have required the IJ to enter an order of removal.  The BIA agreed with the DHS, and reversed the IJ’s order.  It was at that point that the AG inserted himself into the matter by certifying an already-resolved matter to himself and turning it into a challenge to the overall authority to administratively close any case.

Numerous groups filed amicus briefs in this case; they include those that represent unaccompanied children; immigrant rights groups, and academic clinicians.  The American Immigration Council (AIC) argued in its brief that AG Sessions’ history of hostility towards noncitizens renders him unfit to decide the issue raised in Castro-Tum.  Our group of former IJs and Board members brought a unique perspective to the issue, based on our many years of collective experience managing case dockets and addressing the issues that administrative closure is designed to remedy.

Immigration Judges exist by statute.  Therefore, the inherent powers delegated to them (including the power to control their own dockets, and to administratively close cases as a means of exercising such control) come from Congress, and not the Attorney General.  As our brief explains, such authority of judges to control their dockets has been recognized by the Supreme Court and lower federal courts.  Federal regulations issued by the Department of Justice grant immigration judges the power to “exercise their independent judgment and discretion,” including the ability to “take any action consistent with their authorities under the Act and regulations that is appropriate and necessary for the disposition” of the individual cases appearing before them.

Furthermore, the BIA has set out the proper standard for determining whether a case should be administratively closed or required to proceed.  In Matter of Avetisyan, the Board laid out the criteria that may properly be considered in determining whether administrative closure is appropriate.  In Matter of W-Y-U-, the Board added that the most important consideration is whether the party opposing administrative closure has provided a persuasive reason for the case to proceed and be resolved on the merits.  The immigration judge is required set forth his or her reasons for administrative closure in a decision which may be reviewed on appeal to both the BIA and the federal circuit courts.

The brief additionally points out the inadequacy of other existing tools.  In Avetisyan, the immigration judge granted multiple continuances to allow DHS to adjudicate a visa petition filed on behalf of the respondent.  However, the petition could not be adjudicated because USCIS (which adjudicates such petitions) was required to keep returning the file to the ICE prosecutor before it could get to the petition because it was needed for the next immigration court hearing (which was only scheduled to check on the status of the visa petition).  The file remained in constant orbit, never remaining with USCIS long enough to allow for adjudication of the petition, which in turn would require another continuance.  Furthermore, federal regulation specifically requires that immigration proceedings by administratively closed before USCIS will adjudicate certain waivers of inadmissibility.  As noted in the brief, DHS defended such administrative closure requirement when its necessity was questioned by a comment on the proposed regulation.

Our group of amici expresses our sincere gratitude to the outstanding attorneys at Akin Gump who provided their pro bono assistance:  partner Steven H. Schulman; Andrew Schwerin, the primary drafter; and  Martine Cicconi, Mallory Jones, and Chris Chamberlain, who drafted sections of the brief.  We also thank Prof. Deborah Anker of Harvard Law School and the staff and students of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic for its invaluable support and insights.  The amici included  in our brief were former BIA Chair and Board Member and former Immigration Judge Paul W. Schmidt; former Board Members Cecelia M. Espenoza, Lory D. Rosenberg, Gustavo D. Villageliu, and former Immigration Judges Sarah M. Burr, Bruce J. Einhorn, Noel Ferris, John F. Gossart, Jr., William P. Joyce, Edward Kandler, Carol King, Susan Roy, Polly A. Webber, and myself.

Copyright 2018 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

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