By Katharine Yale

Today in Tiscareno-Garcia v. Holder, a published civil case, the Fourth Circuit denied in part, and dismissed in part Rafael Tiscareno-Garcia’s (“Plaintiff”) petition for review of an order of the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”).

Background Leading up to Removal Proceedings and Procedural History

Plaintiff is a Mexican national who was apprehended three times in less than two years for his illegal presence in the United States. Shortly after his last arrest, Plaintiff illegally entered the US again and avoided apprehension for ten years while living in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In November 2010, Plaintiff was arrested during a workplace raid by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) division of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”). Plaintiff was charged with illegal entry in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a). Illegal entry is a misdemeanor offense and the sentence for such an offense can be no more than six months. Plaintiff pled guilty. Before serving 181 days in prison, DHS served Plaintiff with a Notice to Appear (“NTA”) stating that he was subject to removal. Once Plaintiff was released from prison, DHS began the removal proceedings.

First, the proceedings went before an Immigration Judge (“IJ”). Plaintiff conceded that he was subject to removal, but argued that removal would cause a hardship to his citizen children and that for the ten years he had been living in the US, he was a law-abiding citizen. The government countered that because Plaintiff was incarcerated for 181 days, he was statutorily barred from establishing “good moral character” under § 1101(f)(7).

The IJ agreed with the government’s contention and BIA affirmed, thereby ruling that Plaintiff was ineligible for cancellation of removal. Plaintiff appealed from BIA’s decision.

Should a Conviction for Illegal Entry Preclude a Finding that an Alien is of Good Moral Character?

Plaintiff’s argument below and on appeal was that illegal entry should not be used to defeat a showing of “good moral character” under § 1101(f)(7). He argued that the court is not bound by the plain language of the statute because including illegal entry under § 1101(f)(7) produces an absurd result.

First, the court reiterated that it must first determine legislative intent, according to Chevron. If the intent of Congress is clear, then the court and the agency must uphold the clear and unambiguous intent of Congress. Plaintiff conceded that the statute was clear and unambiguous, but argued that it would not make sense for Congress to bar aliens from applying for cancellation based on an illegal entry conviction, when it was the illegal entry that rendered the alien removable in the first place. His argument was that almost all nonpermanent residents who apply for cancellation of removal could be charged and convicted of illegal entry, and that therefore the relief under § 1229b(b) would be illusory.

The Fourth Circuit recognized that there are “exceptionally rare” cases when the reading of the plain language of the statute would produce an absurd result at odds with congressional intent and that would “shock the general moral or common sense.” However, the court also recognized that it is “more than a little hesitant” to go against what Congress expressed in a clearly written statute.

Nonpermanent Residents who are Convicted for Illegal Entry and Serve the Maximum Sentence of 180 Days are Barred from Showing “Good Moral Character” Under § 1101(f)

Here, the court found that Plaintiff fell short of demonstrating a truly absurd result. The court concluded that the statutory scheme in § 1229b(b) and § 1101(f) was reasonable in providing the benefit of cancellation of removal to some nonpermanent residents and not to others.   The statute does not provide relief to those nonpermanent residents who conduct themselves in a way that is “antithetical to ‘good moral character,’” or those who spend more than 180 days in jail. Plaintiff fell into the latter category.

The court went on to conclude that it was sensible for Congress to use the length of incarceration “as a proxy for seriousness.” Further, not all nonpermanent residents enter the US illegally as Plaintiff contended. Some nonpermanent residents may be lawfully admitted, but later violate the terms of their visas. Others may be convicted of illegal entry, but do not serve the maximum sentence of 180 days that would preclude them from cancellation of removal.

Under the standard articulated in Sigmon Coal, the court only had to find that there were plausible reasons for Congress to intend the result compelled by the statute. The court held that the reasons stated above were plausible reasons for Congress to exclude relief to those nonpermanent aliens who serve six months in jail for an illegal entry conviction.

If a Conviction for Illegal Entry Precludes a Finding that an Alien is of Good Moral Character, when does the Required Ten Year Showing End?

There are two showings that a plaintiff must make to show eligibility for cancellation of removal under 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(b)(1): that he or she has been physically present in the US for at least ten years; and that he or she has been a person of good moral character during the ten year period.   Here, the Plaintiff argued that the ten year period should end when the NTA is served. However, the BIA’s position is that the ten year period ends with the entry of a final administrative decision.

The Fourth Circuit found that it did not have jurisdiction to address this claim because Plaintiff did not raise this argument with the BIA.   The Fourth Circuit can only review final orders of removal and here, Plaintiff did not exhaust all administrative remedies with the agency. The court dismissed Plaintiff’s argument that he was not able to address the issue with BIA because his lawyer did not receive the NTA prior to the order of removal. Plaintiff could have raised the claim after his lawyer was instructed to show why Plaintiff was not ineligible for cancellation of removal, and therefore the government’s failure to provide a copy of the NTA to Plaintiff’s lawyer was not a barrier to exhausting all administrative remedies.

The Fourth Circuit denied in part and dismissed in part Plaintiff’s petition for review of BIA’s order.