UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT August Term, 2009
August 6, 2010
JOSE ARGUETA, PETITIONER,
ERIC H. HOLDER, JR., UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL, RESPONDENT.
Argueta v. Holder
Submitted: June 17, 2010
Before: McLAUGHLIN, CALABRESI, LIVINGSTON, Circuit Judges.
31 Petitioner seeks review of a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals affirming the 32 judgment of the Immigration Judge to deny his application for special rule cancellation of 33 removal under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act. We hold that we 34 have jurisdiction to review the petition's challenge to the authority of the Immigration Judge to 35 consider, in exercising its discretion, prior convictions that occurred outside of the time period 36 used to determine statutory eligibility for cancellation of removal based on "good moral 37 character." Because we find nothing in the applicable statutory and regulatory provisions that 38 temporally limits the discretionary factors the agency may consider in deciding whether to grant 39 cancellation of removal to an applicant who is statutorily eligible for that relief, we DENY the 40 petition for review on the merits.
Petitioner Jose Argueta ("Argueta"), a native and citizen of El Salvador, seeks review of 9 a final order of removal entered by the BIA on August 31, 2009 denying his application for 10 special rule cancellation of removal pursuant to the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central 11 American Relief Act of 1997 ("NACARA"), Pub. L. No. 105-100, 111 Stat. 2160, 2193-96, as 12 amended by Pub L. No. 105-139, 111 Stat. 2644 (codified in scattered sections of 8 U.S.C.), and 13 affirming a December 12, 2007 decision of Immigration Judge ("IJ") Douglas Schoppert. In re 14 Jose A. Argueta, No. A028 580 042 (B.I.A. Aug. 31, 2009), aff'g No. A 28 580 042 (Immig. Ct. 15 N.Y. City Dec. 12, 2007). Argueta contends that in denying his application for special 16 cancellation of removal as a matter of discretion, the IJ improperly considered as adverse factors 17 prior arrests and convictions that took place more than seven years prior to the date of his 18 application. We find that Argueta's petition raises a question of law that we have jurisdiction to 19 review, but we deny his petition on the merits because we conclude that there is no temporal bar 20 to the factors that the agency may consider in determining whether a petitioner's application for 21 cancellation of removal should be granted as a matter of discretion.
23 Argueta arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 1989. While in the United 24 States, between 1989 and 1996, Argueta was arrested four times for driving while under the 25 influence of alcohol, and was convicted of three separate offenses. Argueta faced escalating 26 penalties for these convictions that included fines, incarceration of up to ten months, probation, 1 and the temporary revocation of his driver's license. Argueta testified that he had not been 2 arrested since 1996, and this contention has not been challenged. 3 On May 17, 2006, the Department of Homeland Security served Argueta with a Notice to 4 Appear, alleging that he entered the United States without having been admitted or paroled. At a 5 January 11, 2007 removal hearing, Argueta conceded his removability, but sought relief in the 6 form of NACARA special rule cancellation of removal. The government stipulated that Argueta 7 was eligible for special rule cancellation, but it argued that the IJ should exercise his discretion to 8 deny the application because of Argueta's multiple prior arrests for driving while impaired. 9 On December 12, 2007, the IJ issued an oral decision in which it determined that though 10 Argueta met the statutory requirements for eligibility for special rule cancellation of removal, it 11 would deny him that discretionary relief. The IJ found the "adverse discretionary factors in th[e] 12 record [to be] extremely serious." The IJ discussed the fact of Argueta's four arrests, and 13 observed that the penalties imposed were "frankly . . . quite severe." The IJ recognized that 14 Argueta had not been arrested since 1996, but the IJ also noted that he was not currently in an 15 alcohol rehabilitation program, and the IJ stated that "the fact that he has been arrested on 16 repeated occasions does not . . . create enormous confidence that he will be able to avoid further 17 arrests in the future." The IJ concluded that these adverse factors outweighed the favorable 18 factors in the record, which included the fact that Argueta had lived in the United States for 19 many years, had been employed, and had paid income taxes.
20 Argueta appealed the IJ's decision to the BIA, which, on August 31, 2009, affirmed the IJ 21 and dismissed Argueta's appeal. The BIA found that the IJ "carefully considered the positive 22 equities in [Argueta's] favor," but properly concluded that these positive factors "did not 23 outweigh the negative factors in the record, particularly his three convictions for driving under 1 the influence and the serious danger that such activity poses to the community." The BIA also 2 specifically considered and rejected Argueta's argument that the IJ had erred by considering 3 convictions that fell outside of the seven years used for the "good moral character" statutory 4 requirement for cancellation of removal. It explained that "[f]or the purposes of discretion, the 5 factual inquiry is not restricted to the seven years preceding the application." Argueta filed a 6 timely petition for review to this Court.
Enacted in 1997, NACARA amended certain provisions of the Illegal
10 Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 ("IIRIRA"), among
other things, to allow
11 "qualified aliens from certain countries placed in [deportation]
proceedings before, on, or after
12 April 1, 1997, to apply for 'special rule' protection from
deportation" based on "the more
13 generous pre-IIRIRA suspension of deportation remedy." Tanov v.
INS, 443 F.3d 195, 199 (2d
14 Cir. 2006) (alteration in original) (quoting Simeonov v. Ashcroft,
371 F.3d 532, 536 (9th Cir.
15 2004)). Specifically, NACARA amended IIRIRA § 309 by adding a
subsection (f) entitled
16 "Special Rule for Cancellation of Removal." NACARA § 203, 111
Stat. 2160, 2198 (codified at
17 8 U.S.C. § 1101 note). That subsection provides that the
"Attorney General may, under section
18 [8 U.S.C. § 1229b] of [the Immigration and Nationality] Act,
cancel removal of . . . an alien who
19 is inadmissible or deportable from the United States" if the alien
meets certain statutory
20 requirements. Id. These requirements are set forth in the
margin.*fn1 The applicant for special
cancellation of removal bears the burden of "establish[ing] by a
preponderance of the evidence
2 that he or she is eligible for . . . special rule cancellation of
removal and that discretion should be
exercised to grant relief." 8 C.F.R. § 1240.64(a) (emphasis
4 The special rule cancellation of removal under NACARA is "[s]ubject to the provisions 5 of the Immigration and Nationality Act" as modified by IIRIRA, including section 242(a)(2)(B) 6 of the Act, codified at 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(2)(B), which places limitations on judicial review. 7 NACARA, § 203(f)(1). Under 8 U.S.C § 1252(a)(2)(B), "no court . . . [has] jurisdiction to 8 review . . . any judgment regarding the granting of relief under . . . [8 U.S.C. § 1229b]," which 9 includes cancellation of removal. This provision divests us of authority to review the IJ's 10 discretionary determinations concerning cancellation of removal. See Mendez v. Holder, 566 11 F.3d 316, 319-20 (2d Cir. 2009); Rodriguez v. Gonzales, 451 F.3d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 2006).
12 Pursuant to the amendments of the REAL ID Act of 2005, Pub. L. No. 109-13, 119 Stat. 231, 13 however, we retain jurisdiction to review all "constitutional claims or questions of law raised 14 upon a petition for review." 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(2)(D); see also Sumbundu v. Holder, 602 F.3d 15 47, 52 (2d Cir. 2010). "Questions of law" encompass "the same types of issues that courts 16 traditionally exercised in habeas review over Executive detentions." Xiao Ji Chen v. U.S. Dep't 1 of Justice, 471 F.3d 315, 324, 326-27 (2d Cir. 2006). We have not defined the "precise outer 2 limits" of this category, but we have indicated that a question of law arises, inter alia, "where a 3 discretionary decision is argued to be an abuse of discretion because it was based on a legally 4 erroneous standard." Khan v. Gonzales, 495 F.3d 31, 34 (2d Cir. 2007) (internal quotation 5 marks and alterations omitted). To determine whether we have jurisdiction to consider a petition 6 for review, we must "study the arguments asserted." Id. at 35 (internal quotation marks omitted).
With respect to the final "extreme hardship" condition, applicants are entitled to a rebuttable presumption of extreme hardship, with the burden of proof on the government to rebut the presumption. See 8 C.F.R. § 1240.64(d).
7 "We do not rely solely on a petitioner's description of his claims, but scrutinize a petitioner's 8 arguments to determine whether they raise reviewable questions." Id. We retain jurisdiction to 9 determine our own jurisdiction. See James v. Mukasey, 522 F.3d 250, 253 (2d Cir. 2008). 10 In this case, the IJ and the BIA found that Argueta was statutorily eligible for special 11 cancellation of removal, and denied his application as an exercise of discretion. Review of that 12 discretionary determination is statutorily barred, except to the extent Argueta's petition raises a 13 constitutional claim or question of law. See Sumbundu, 602 F.3d at 54.*fn2 The government argues 14 that we should dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because Argueta fails to raise a "colorable" legal 15 or constitutional claim. We disagree. Though all but one of Argueta's claims lie beyond our 16 jurisdiction because they are directed to the manner in which the IJ balanced the equities in 17 denying his application for discretionary relief, we find that Argueta does indeed raise a question 18 of law: whether the IJ applied a legally erroneous standard when the IJ considered convictions 19 that occurred prior to the last 7 years in determining how to exercise discretion.
1 Argueta's argument that the IJ applied the wrong legal standard in exercising his 2 discretion raises a question of law that is subject to our review. See, e.g., Wallace v. Gonzales, 3 463 F.3d 135, 138 (2d Cir. 2006) (per curiam) (holding that the petitioner had presented a 4 question of law in arguing that an official evaluating an application for adjustment of status may 5 not consider the adjudication of the applicant's adjudication as a "'Youthful Offender' under 6 New York State criminal law"). And though--for the reasons explained below--we conclude 7 that Argueta's claim lacks merit, it is not "insubstantial" or "frivolous." Barco-Sandoval v. 8 Gonzales, 516 F.3d 35, 40 (2d Cir. 2008). "[F]ailure to make a meritorious substantive claim 9 should not be confused with an attempt to overcome a lack of jurisdiction by invoking the 10 rhetoric of a 'question of law.'" Khan, 495 F.3d at 35. In this respect, we emphasize that 11 Argueta's contention that the IJ weighed factors that the IJ was prohibited from considering is 12 quite distinct from the unreviewable argument that the IJ balanced improperly those factors that 13 the IJ could consider.
15 Because Argueta's claim fails on the merits, we deny his petition. Argueta's argument 16 that the IJ could not consider his prior convictions as a negative discretionary factor incorrectly 17 attempts to impose the standards for statutory eligibility for special cancellation of removal onto 18 the IJ's discretionary power to grant or deny relief after finding that these statutory requirements 19 have been met.
20 To be eligible for relief, an applicant must show that she has been "a person of good 21 moral character during the required period of continuous physical presence." 8 C.F.R. § 22 240.66(b)(3); see also NACARA § 203(f)(1)(A)(iii). In the context of NACARA, the requisite 23 period for continuous physical presence is seven years immediately preceding the filing date for 7 1 the application for special cancellations of removal. C.F.R. § 240.66(b)(2); see also NACARA § 2 203(f)(1)(A)(ii). Because Argueta's convictions from 1996 and earlier took place more than 3 seven years prior to his application for relief, his prior arrests and convictions for driving while 4 under the influence did not render him ineligible for special cancellation of removal based on his 5 moral character. Argueta contends that it necessarily follows that if his prior convictions cannot 6 be used for evaluating his "moral character" for purposes of NACARA eligibility, then they may 7 also not be used by the IJ in its weighing of discretionary factors.
8 Argueta's argument--a matter of first impression in this Circuit--is unavailing. There is 9 no statutory or regulatory provision that temporally restricts the discretionary factors that the 10 agency may consider in deciding whether to grant or deny cancellation of removal. And there is 11 no reason why the time frame used to determine "good moral character" for statutory eligibility 12 should implicitly constrain the agency's broad discretion to decide whether to grant cancellation 13 of removal as a matter of grace. To the contrary, under BIA precedent, the agency regularly 14 balances many positive and adverse factors in deciding how to exercise its discretion. "Among 15 the factors deemed adverse to an alien [is] . . . the existence of a criminal record." In re C-V-T, 16 22 I. & N. Dec. 7, 11 (B.I.A 1998). And prior criminal acts are not excluded from consideration 17 because of their vintage; rather, the "nature, recency, and seriousness" of the prior convictions is 18 considered as part of the overall balancing test, as is "proof of genuine rehabilitation if a criminal 19 record exists." See id. Argueta's argument that the agency applied the wrong legal standard by 20 considering impermissible factors in the exercise of its discretion therefore fails. 21 To the extent Argueta also challenges the weight the IJ and BIA gave to his prior 22 convictions and his claims to have successfully rehabilitated, that is a discretionary judgment that 23 we lack jurisdiction to review.
2 We have carefully considered all of Argueta's arguments and find
them to be without
merit. For the foregoing reasons, the petition for review is