Fix Immigration by Improving Its Justice System

by Angelo Paparelli

lawyer with section of law.jpg"U.S. immigration law is like stratified rock, revealing layer on layer of Congressional accretions laid down over many years, with the superstructure upended in tectonic shifts triggered by the baffling and contradictory interpretations of multiple agencies and courts." 

Nothing of substance has changed since I offered that post last August, save for a groundbreaking election that reversed years of Republican opposition and Democratic indifference, leading to a bipartisan effort to reform the immigration laws comprehensively. 

While federal legislators and the Obama Administration are putting in place new scaffolding for immigration reform, the foundation remains broken and shaky. A path to citizenship, enhanced border security, disincentives to illegal entry and employment, and adequate future flows of legal workers are all well and good.  But the superstructure of the new immigration system will topple and the temptation to enter illegally or overstay will return if the basic approach to justice, fairness and due process is not dramatically transformed.

Reforms of the immigration justice system could conceivably be narrow or wide-ranging.  A necessary, if partial, solution -- just a first step -- would reform the appellate process within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).   This agency countenances a woefully unjust appellate body, the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO), that reviews decisions of USCIS field offices and regional service centers denying requests for immigration benefits submitted by American and foreign citizens and U.S. employers.

As I've noted recently, the AAO “is staffed by too many non-lawyers, issuing too many legally dubious and inordinately delayed decisions, without rules of court, from within the same agency (USCIS) that issued the initial decision, while denying many parties with legal interests in the outcome an opportunity to be heard or affording a means to preserve the status quo (e.g., uninterrupted employment authorization) when an appeal remains pending.” The AAO, however, is only part of the problem; reforms to the system of administrative justice at USCIS must be holistic and comprehensive. 

Administrative reform (which Congress should enact into law rather than trust the agency to promulgate) must begin with a change to the USCIS rules which now limit the types of parties (a) who are permitted to appear before the agency and (b) the even smaller population of persons and organizations allowed to appeal an adverse decision. Moreover, the initial decision by a USCIS adjudicator must include an articulation of the evidence submitted and a detailed ruling on each of the legal issues raised.

In all, I offer "25 Proposed Reforms to the Administrative Appellate Process within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services," and welcome reader commentary.  These suggestions, if adopted, would improve the system of immigration justice, but they only nip at solutions. 

Real justice reforms in the immigration arena would produce efficiencies, cost savings, improved access to justice, and beneficial changes to the way binding legal precedents are decided.  As detailed at length in a February 27, 2013 New York Law Journal article, "Appealing Alternatives: Immigration Justice System Re-Imagined," by Ted J. Chiappari and me, Congress should establish a single Federal Immigration Court with full powers under Article I of the Constitution to hear appeals of all immigration-related administrative decisions rendered by the several agencies and departments in Washington. 

Such reforms would also upgrade the professionalism and commitment to zealous advocacy of the immigration bar (whether in private practice or government service), while making the law more understandable and accessible to the public and the growing numbers of lawyers whose substantive expertise is other than immigration but who laudably engage in providing pro bono immigration legal services to individuals and non-profits. 

Modeled after the Federal Bankruptcy Court, the proposed Federal Immigration Court would allow judges to develop the necessary expertise in all areas of immigration law.  It would also preclude the announcement by the federal agencies and departments of policy by administrative ruling rather than by the promulgation of proposed rules under the Administrative Procedure Act, which offers the public prior notice and the opportunity to comment before any immigration regulation would be made final.

lawyer with red section of law.jpgSo let's cut to the chase.  Here is the essential kernel of thought to digest from the introduction and conclusion of the cited New York Law Journal article:

If, as author Robert Sherrill maintained in his 1970 book, Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music, then immigration justice in 21st Century America is as melodious as an atonal, off-pitch cacophony.  The forms and forums for truth-seeking and dispute resolution under the U.S. immigration system are wide-ranging, largely counter-intuitive and often too dysfunctional to mete out true justice. . . .

[I]mmigration justice today is unmelodious and painful to sit through.  With a new Immigration Court as orchestral director, however, the several administrative agencies and immigration stakeholders sitting in musicians’ chairs could render a tour de force ensemble production, a command performance to delight Lady Justice and all citizens, foreign and domestic alike, who care deeply for her continued health and well-being.

About The Author

Angelo Paparelli is a partner of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. Mr. Paparelli, with a bicoastal practice in Southern California and New York City, is known for providing creative solutions to complex and straightforward immigration law problems, especially involving mergers and acquisitions, labor certifications and the H-1B visa category. His practice areas include legislative advocacy; employer compliance audits and investigations; U.S. and foreign work visas and permanent residence for executives, managers, scientists, scholars, investors, professionals, students and visitors; immigration messaging and speech-writing; corporate policy formulation; and immigration litigation before administrative agencies and the federal courts. He is frequently quoted in leading national publications on immigration law. He is also President of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers, a 30-firm global consortium of leading immigration practitioners. Paparelli’s blog and a comprehensive list of his many immigration law articles can be found at He is an alumnus of the University of Michigan where he earned his B.A., and of Wayne State University Law School where he earned his J.D. Paparelli is admitted to the state bars of California, Michigan and New York.

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