United States District Court, District of Columbia
RANDOLPH D. MOSS, District Judge.
Loucace Ampe petitioned this court under 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c) to review the denial of her application for naturalization by Defendant United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS"). As relevant here, to qualify for naturalization under the Immigration and Nationality Act ("INA"), 8 U.S.C. § 1101 et seq., an applicant must have "been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence, " 8 U.S.C. §§ 1427, 1429, and must be "of good moral character, " id. at § 1427(a). Petitioner obtained lawful permanent resident ("LPR") status roughly seven years before applying for naturalization, premising her LPR application on her marriage to Idriss Martin Sy, himself already an LPR. When she applied and completed an interview for LPR status, however, she failed to disclose that she had two children with another man while still married to Sy. When she later applied for naturalization, her written application revealed that she was no longer married to Sy but did not disclose that she had since remarried her children's father, who was in the United States illegally. She later disclosed this fact during her naturalization interview.
According to the government, this history precludes Petitioner from naturalizing for three reasons. First, the government argues that Petitioner was not "lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence" under 8 U.S.C. § 1427 and § 1429 because her permanent residence application sought "to procure" an immigration "benefit" either "by fraud or willfully misrepresenting a material fact, " which would render her inadmissible under 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(6)(C)(i). Second, the government argues that even in the absence of an intent to mislead, Petitioner was not "lawfully admitted" because her failure to disclose the fact that she had two children with another man "shut off a line of inquiry" that might have led USCIS to question the bona fides of her marriage to Sy and thus might have led to the denial of her LPR application. Finally, the government argues that Petitioner also lacks the "good moral character" required to naturalize under 8 U.S.C. § 1427(a) because she purportedly lied to USCIS by failing to disclose her children in the course of her adjustment to permanent residence status and also because she initially failed to disclose that she had remarried when she filed for naturalization. Petitioner disputes each of these contentions.
In the typical case challenging an administrative decision, the merits of the parties' respective positions would be analyzed through the lens of agency deference, and the Court would merely need to decide whether the agency's decision was reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. The dispute, moreover, would likely be resolved on the administrative record and the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. The INA, however, requires a court to apply a more searching standard when considering the denial of an application for naturalization. In place of the typical, deferential standards, the INA requires that a court exercise de novo review and "make its own findings of fact and conclusions of law." 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c).
Now before the Court is the government's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, which argues that there are no disputed issues of material fact and that it is entitled to prevail as a matter of law on each of the three stated grounds for denying Petitioner's application. See Dkt. 11. The Court concludes that it must consult "matters outside the pleadings" to decide this motion, and so it will treat the motion as one for summary judgment. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). Looking to the merits, the Court holds that the record developed to date is inadequate for it to conclude, without a factual hearing, that Petitioner committed fraud or willful misrepresentation for the purpose of obtaining an immigration benefit. The Court further concludes that the government's second argument - that Petitioner was inadmissible because her misstatement, even if non-fraudulent, was material to her application - misstates the relevant legal standard because it is relevant only if the government has already shown that Petitioner acted fraudulently or willfully. The Court thus concludes that the materiality of any misrepresentation in an LPR application is not an independent basis to deny a Naturalization application. Finally, the Court concludes that there remain genuine disputes of material fact as to whether Petitioner has demonstrated good moral character. The government's motion for summary judgment is accordingly DENIED.
Petitioner Loucace Ampe, a native and citizen of the Ivory Coast, married Sy, a lawful permanent resident of the United States, on January 12, 1998. Dkt. 1-1 at 16. Sy later filed Form I-130 Petition for Alien Relative on Petitioner's behalf to sponsor her for an immigrant visa. See Dkt. 15-3 at 2. That petition was approved on July 24, 1998. Dkt. 1-1 at 16. Five years later, and eight months after giving birth to her first child, Petitioner applied for LPR status. Dkt. 11-5 at 3. The application form - Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status ("LPR Form") - instructed Petitioner to "list your present husband/wife, all your sons and daughters (if you have none, write none'. If additional space is needed, use separate paper)." Id. In response to that instruction Petitioner listed Sy but did not list any children or write "none"; she simply left the remaining spaces blank. Id. After she submitted the form, but before a USCIS officer interviewed her in connection with it, Petitioner gave birth to a second child. Dkt. 1-1 at 16. At her LPR interview on June 23, 2005, approximately three months after the birth of her second child, Petitioner again failed to disclose her children to the USCIS officer, and she confirmed the answers she had submitted on the LPR Form. Id. Petitioner was granted LPR status on September 15, 2005. Dkt. 1 at 2 (Petition for Rev. ¶ 4).
Petitioner applied for citizenship on March 19, 2012. Dkt. 1-1 at 16. She represented that she was eligible for naturalization because she had lived in the country for at least five years as an LPR. Dkt. 11-2 at 2. On the N-400 application form ("Naturalization Form"), she provided complete information about her two children and accurately stated that she had divorced Sy, but she did not disclose that she had since married a different man - Joseph N'Da, the father of both of her children. See Dkt. 11-2 at 3, 5 (listing marital status as "divorced, " indicating that she had been married only once, and not listing a "current spouse"). During her subsequent citizenship interview on June 12, 2012, Petitioner indicated to a USCIS officer that both of her children were born during her marriage to Sy but were fathered by N'Da. Dkt. 1-1 at 15; Dkt. 11-3 at 1. She also revealed that she was now married to N'Da. See Dkt. 15-2 at 2 (Ampe Aff. ¶ 2).
USCIS denied Petitioner's application for naturalization on June 14, 2012. See Dkt. 1-1 at 15-17. It concluded that Petitioner was ineligible for naturalization because she had not been "lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence in accordance with all applicable provisions" of the INA, as required under 8 U.S.C. § 1429, because she had "willfully misrepresented a material fact" in applying for LPR status, in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(6)(C)(i). Dkt. 1-1 at 17. The agency based its decision on the fact that Petitioner had not disclosed her first child on her LPR Form or mentioned either child during her LPR interview, and it concluded that such an omission was material because it called into question the bona fides of her marriage to Sy. Id. Petitioner sought a hearing on that decision. Dkt. 11-4 at 2-3. In her request for a hearing, she explained that her failure to disclose the existence of her children was "due simply to a misunderstanding of the application itself and not a willful misrepresentation, " and took issue with USCIS's attempt to question the bona fides of her marriage to Sy. Dkt. 11-4 at 3. She also submitted a sworn statement explaining that she did not list her current husband, Joseph N'Da, on her original application for citizenship because "[h]e is a[n] overstay I did not want to put in the application." Id. at 5. Following the hearing, USCIS reaffirmed the denial of her application on November 21, 2013. Dkt. 1-1 at 2.
Petitioner sought review of USCIS's seemingly final decision with this Court on April 3, 2014. See Dkt. 1. The government moved for and was granted an extension of time to answer until October 20, 2014, in light of USCIS's representation that it was "taking a fresh look at [Ampe's] application." Dkt. 6 at 1-2; August 19, 2014 Minute Order. USCIS subsequently interviewed Petitioner a second time, see Dkt. 9 at 1, purportedly to "resolve the case without further litigation, " see Dkt. 11 at 11. On October 6, 2014, USCIS reaffirmed the denial, but rather than further addressing its prior findings, the agency added a new, independent rationale for its finding: In addition to affirming its original conclusion that Petitioner had not been lawfully admitted as an LPR, USCIS found that she did not meet the "good moral character" requirement for naturalization set forth in 8 U.S.C. § 1427(a)(3) because of her alleged misrepresentations and because she had allegedly attempted to "conceal, harbor, or shield from detection" an illegally present alien, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iii), when she did not list N'Da on her naturalization application. Id. at 5-7. After USCIS issued its decision, the government moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment in this case. Dkts. 11, 12.
The government's motion is now before the Court. After considering the parties' briefs, the Court convened a teleconference with the parties to pose several questions about the pending motion, see Dkt. 19 (Hearing Tr. of Sept. 11, 2015), and then convened a further teleconference to allow the parties to address the Court's questions, see Dkt. 20 (Hearing Tr. of Sept. 17, 2015).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court reviews an application for naturalization de novo and makes "its own findings of fact and conclusions of law and shall, at the request of the petitioner, conduct a hearing de novo on the application." 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c). "This grant of authority is unusual in its scope - rarely does a district court review an agency decision de novo and make its own findings of fact." Nagahi v. INS, 219 F.3d 1166, 1169 (10th Cir. 2000). Indeed, de novo review of a denial of a naturalization application "is in stark contrast to the appeal process for orders of deportation and petitions for asylum, in which federal courts accord the Attorney General great deference." O'Sullivan v. USCIS, 453 F.3d 809, 811 (7th Cir. 2006). The Court does not defer to any of USCIS's findings or conclusions in reviewing an application for naturalization. "[T]he burden is on the alien applicant, " however, "to show [her] eligibility for citizenship in every respect, " and any "doubts should be resolved in favor of the United States and against the claimant." Berenyi v. Dist. Dir., INS, 385 U.S. 630, 637 (1967) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Although 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c) mandates that the reviewing court "shall, at the request of the petitioner, conduct a hearing de novo on the application, " federal courts have declined to interpret the provision as requiring an evidentiary hearing where there is no genuine dispute as to any material facts, see Chan v. Gantner, 464 F.3d 289, 295-96 (2d Cir. 2006) (holding that the mere use of the word "hearing" in the statute "does not mandate an evidentiary hearing be held"); see also Beleshi v. Holder, No. 12-11681, 2014 WL 4638359, at *4 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 16, 2014). The Court agrees that, in the absence of a factual dispute, there would be no reason to hold a hearing and, accordingly, the government's motion for summary judgment is properly before the Court. The Court will grant such a motion only if the pleadings and any declarations or other evidence show that "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "A genuine issue of material fact exists if the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, could support a reasonable jury's verdict for the non-moving party." Brooks v. Grundmann, 748 F.3d 1273, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Thus, although Petitioner bears the ultimate burden of persuasion to show that she is eligible for citizenship, Berenyi, 385 U.S. at 637, at the summary judgment stage the burden is on the government to show that Petitioner will not be able to make that showing as a matter of law.
The government argues that Petitioner is ineligible for citizenship for three reasons. First, it contends that Petitioner was not "lawfully admitted" as a permanent resident because she obtained an immigration benefit - her LPR status - through either "fraud or willful misrepresentation." See 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(6)(C)(i). Next, it argues that Petitioner was not "lawfully admitted... in accordance with all applicable provisions of" the INA, id. § 1429, even if she did not intentionally mislead USCIS because inaccuracies in her LPR application were material since they shut off a relevant line of inquiry. And finally, the government maintains that even if Petitioner was "lawfully admitted, " she is barred from naturalization because she has failed to demonstrate "good moral character." See id. § 1427(a).
A. Disputed Material Facts Exist as to Whether Petitioner Was Inadmissible
The government suggests in its opening brief, and more clearly states in its reply, that Petitioner's LPR status was not lawfully obtained - and therefore she is ineligible for naturalization - for two separate but related reasons. First, the government argues that Petitioner fraudulently or intentionally misrepresented a material fact when she did not disclose on her LPR Form that she had a child and did not tell her LPR interviewer that she had two children. Second, the government argues she is inadmissible because she "shut off a line of inquiry" when she made the same misstatement, regardless of whether she did so intentionally. See Dkt. 11 at 20-32; Dkt. 16 at 9-15. As explained below, however, the government's effort to treat these points as independent grounds to deny Petitioner's application for citizenship rests on a misunderstanding of the law. The government can only prevail based on its second contention - that Petitioner's misstatements were material because they cut off a line of inquiry - if it is also correct in its first contention - that Petitioner made willful misrepresentations to obtain an immigration benefit. The Court concludes that the government's first contention implicates disputed issues of material fact, and is thus not suited for summary judgment. This necessarily thwarts the second contention as well.
1. Legal Framework
The INA provides that, except as specified, "no person shall be naturalized unless he has been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence in accordance with all applicable provisions of [the INA]." 8 U.S.C. § 1429. The government does not seek to revoke Petitioner's LPR status, nor could it in light of the expiration of the five-year statutory limitation on rescission of adjustment of status. See 8 U.S.C. § 1256(a). It asserts instead that the relevant question is whether Petitioner's adjustment to LPR status was "procedurally and substantively proper." Dkt. 11 at 16. Under this view, Petitioner's factual status as an LPR is not dispositive as to whether she was "lawfully admitted... in accordance with all applicable provisions of [the INA]." 8 U.S.C. § 1429. The Court agrees that this is the controlling standard.
Congress defined the phrase "lawfully admitted for permanent residence, " which appears in several operative provisions of the INA, to mean "the status of having been lawfully accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the United States as an immigrant in accordance with the immigration laws." 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(20). More than thirty years ago, the Fifth Circuit declined to adopt a "narrow reading of the term lawfully admitted, '" and instead construed the phrase to require not only "procedural regularity, " but also "compliance with substantive legal requirements." Matter of Longstaff, 716 F.2d 1439, 1441 (5th Cir. 1983). Three years later, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit followed suit, holding that an immigrant who concealed a prior drug conviction at the time he adjusted to LPR status was not "lawfully admitted" within the meaning of 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(2). Monet v. INS, 791 F.2d 752, 753 (9th Cir. 1986). The Ninth Circuit reached this conclusion, moreover, even though five years had passed since the applicant had adjusted to LPR status, and he was thus no longer at risk of rescission of that status. Id. at 754. In 2003, the Board of Immigration Appeals ("BIA") adopted this view of the law and ...