The Role of Judges to “Say What the Law Is”: Judicial Oversight of Immigration Adjudication

by Ramon Valdez — Posted in blog on January 31, 2020

By Tess Hellgren, Staff Attorney and Justice Catalyst Legal Fellow

January 31, 2020

Since the beginning of the Trump Administration, the immigration court system has been used as a tool to further the executive branch’s anti-immigrant agenda. The Attorney General and other executive officials have enabled widespread due process violations and skyrocketing case backlogs while imposing case quotas and docketing rules that prevent judges from serving as impartial adjudicators.[1]

Last week, the Seventh Circuit highlighted a new abuse of power: the refusal of executive officials in the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to follow a direct order from a federal court.

The BIA is the administrative body responsible for reviewing decisions that are appealed from sixty-eight immigration courts across the country. Like these immigration courts, the BIA is part of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) – the immigration court system, located in the executive branch, that is ultimately overseen by the Attorney General of the United States. Despite the serious flaws inherent in the design of this system, BIA decisions may at least be appealed up to the appropriate federal circuit court, providing a crucial layer of independent judicial review in individual cases.[2]

In the case of Baez-Sanchez v. Barr, the Seventh Circuit had previously held that the immigration laws unambiguously grant immigration judges the power to waive a noncitizen’s inadmissibility to the United States, overruling the BIA’s prior decision to the contrary.[3] On remand, the BIA “flatly refused to implement” the court’s direct order.[4] Writing that the BIA’s decision “beggars belief,” the Seventh Circuit stated that

We have never before encountered defiance of a remand order, and we hope never to see it again. Members of the Board must count themselves lucky that [the Respondent] has not asked us to hold them in contempt, with all the consequences that possibility entails.[5]

This language is an extraordinary rebuke: it is very rare for a circuit court to issue an implicit threat to hold members of an administrative agency in contempt for directly disregarding a court order. The Seventh Circuit was clear that the BIA was mistaken if it thought that “faced with a conflict between our views and those of the Attorney General it should follow the latter.”[6] Affirming foundational separation of powers principles, the Seventh Circuit admonished that

[I]t should not be necessary to remind the Board, all of whose members are lawyers, that the “judicial Power” under Article III of the Constitution is one to make conclusive decisions, not subject to disapproval or revision by another branch of government . . . Once we reached a conclusion, both the Constitution and the statute required the Board to implement it.[7]

The Seventh Circuit’s decision also noted that the Attorney General had submitted a brief asking the court to give the BIA another opportunity to issue “an authoritative decision” on this issue, arguing that such a decision could be entitled to judicial deference.[8] The court aptly responded that this “request is bizarre,” as the court had already held that the applicable regulation was unambiguous – and an agency “cannot rewrite an unambiguous [law] through the guise of interpretation.”[9] As the Supreme Court made clear in Kisor v. Wilkie, “if the law gives an answer—if there is only one reasonable construction of a regulation—then a court has no business deferring to any other reading, no matter how much the agency insists it would make more sense.”[10]

Notably, even if the Seventh Circuit had found the laws in question to be ambiguous, the Attorney General and members of the BIA do not have free reign to impose any interpretation they choose. It is true that federal courts must defer to the reasoned decisions of administrative agencies when Congress has left the agency’s discretion to interpret an ambiguous provision of law, under the doctrine of Chevron deference.[11] But this deference is not boundless. As the Supreme Court made clear in Chevron, courts should defer to agencies’ interpretation of ambiguous statutes when the agency interpretation is “a reasonable accommodation of conflicting policies that were committed to the agency’s care by the statute.”[12] The agency’s interpretation must thus still fall “within the bounds of reasonable interpretation.”[13]

This standard, and the Seventh Circuit’s reprimand, is especially important as the Attorney General attempts to aggressively expand his control of immigration court adjudication. Under the Trump Administration, the Attorneys General have issued a number of “certified” decisions that attempt to restrict eligibility for asylum based on factors such as domestic violence, gang violence, or past persecution due to family membership.[14] In these decisions, which upend years of established immigration precedent, the Attorney General has pointedly asserted his authority to construe the terms of the Immigration and Nationality Act and implied that federal courts must fall in line with his interpretations.[15]

Yet the Attorney General’s reasoning holds only if his interpretations are actually entitled to judicial deference: if the laws in question are ambiguous and the federal courts find his interpretations reasonable.[16] And as the Supreme Court has admonished, “let there be no mistake: That is a requirement an agency can fail.”[17] Indeed, in addressing the application of the Attorney General’s certified decision in Matter of A-B-, at least one federal court has already held that a “general rule against domestic violence and gang-related claims during a credible fear determination is arbitrary and capricious and violates the immigration laws.”[18]

Faced with the Trump Administration’s weaponization of the immigration courts against asylum-seeking individuals, the role of the federal courts is more important than ever. As the Attorney General and other executive officials attempt to expand their authority to define the terms of immigration adjudication, federal courts should heed the Seventh Circuit’s decision – and remember the foundational legal principle that “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”[19]


[1] See generally Innovation Law Lab and Southern Poverty Law Center, The Attorney General’s Judges: How the U.S. Immigration Courts Became a Deportation Tool, 14–15 (June 2019), https://innovationlawlab.org/reports/the-attorney-generals-judges/; Complaint, Las Americas v. Trump, No. 3:19-cv-02051-SB (D. Or. Dec. 18, 2019), https://innovationlawlab.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/ECF-1-Las-Americas-v.-Trump-No.-19-cv-02051-SB-D.-Or..pdf.

[2] See Immigration and Nationality Act § 242; 8 U.S.C. § 1252.

[3] Baez-Sanchez v. Sessions, 872 F.3d 854, 856 (7th Cir. 2017); Baez-Sanchez v. Barr, No. 19-1642, slip op. at 2–3 (7th Cir. Jan. 23, 2020).

[4] Baez-Sanchez, slip op. at 3.

[5] Id. at 3–4.

[6] Id. at 4.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 4–5.

[9] Id. at 5.

[10] Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S.Ct. 2400, 2415 (2019).

[11] Chevron  v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842–43 (1984).

[12] Id. at 844–45; see also 5 U.S.C. § 706(2) (a reviewing court shall set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions found to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law”).

[13] See Kisor, 139 S.Ct. at 2416, quoting Arlington v. FCC, 569 U.S. 290, 296 (2013).

[14] See Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (2018); Matter of L-E-A-, 27 I&N Dec. 581 (2019). Note inconsistencies

[15] See Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N at 326–27; Matter of L-E-A-, 27 I&N at 591–92.

[16] See Nat’l Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 982 (2005) (allowing for agency interpretation to override judicial interpretation in certain circumstances, when the agency interpretation is “otherwise entitled to Chevron deference”).

[17] See Kisor, 139 S.Ct. at 2416.

[18] Grace v. Whitaker, 344 F. Supp. 3d 96, 127 (D.D.C. 2018).

[19] See Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 177 (1803).