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Sam Bernsen, 1919-2020

July 30, 2020 (8 min read)

Hon. Paul Wickham Schmidt, July 30, 2020 - EXCLUSIVE

"I’d seen his name on briefs and old court cases (See, e.g., Vaccaro v. Bernsen, 267 F.2d 265 (5th Cir. 1959)). But, the first time I met Sam Bernsen was in January 1976, when I reported for work at the “Legacy” Immigration & Naturalization (“INS”) Office of General Counsel at the Chester Arthur Building in a rather run-down neighborhood within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol. 

That building was perhaps a suitably shabby tribute to the “stepchild” status of INS within the hierarchy of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”). The carpet was shopworn, elevators slow, and the corridors dim as a result of the Ford Administration’s “Whip Inflation Now” (“WIN”) austerity program that had removed every other fluorescent lightbulb from the fixtures.

The office was a far cry from today’s Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) massive legal operations: Just Sam, then the General Counsel, his Deputy, Ralph Farb, and two other “General Attorneys,” Stuart Shelby and Janice Podolny. Stu, Janice, and I actually shared an office with three desks (but only two telephones).

And it was always “Sam” not “Samuel.” Sam was his legal name, and he was very proud of it. Perhaps he connected it with “Uncle Sam.”

In any event, one of his “pet peeves” was when unknowing folks addressed him as “Samuel” in memos or on legal documents. I remember him vigorously “blacking out” the offending “uel” with his pen. His other pet peeve was when the server put parmesan cheese on his daily lunchtime bowl of minestrone soup at the GAO cafeteria!

Remarkably, I had gotten the job without personal interview by Sam. I attributed this to recommendations by Sam’s good friend and my first mentor Maury Roberts, then Chairman of the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”), and another friend of Sam’s, Leon Ullman, then Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel.

Working for Sam was like having a personal daily seminar in American immigration law from a really great professor. Sam had done it all. And, he took the time to explain everything to those working with him. 

During his teens, Sam started at the very bottom of the Civil Service system as an “assistant messenger” with the U.S. Attorney in New York and then the INS on Ellis Island. According to Sam, he never he never made “full messenger.” But, he did rise to the top of the ranks of Civil Servants as General Counsel. 

In between, Sam was an immigration inspector, chair of a board of special inquiry (the predecessor to today’s Immigration Courts), chief adjudicator, Assistant Commissioner for Adjudications, and District Director in New Orleans as well as serving in the Army during World War II and later as a Major in the Air Force Reserve. He knew the policies and the stories behind every regulation and operating instruction, as well as the history of all the immigration statutes from the 1924 Act on.

America’s immigrant heritage that Sam observed at Ellis Island and in his childhood neighborhood in Brooklyn greatly influenced his life. The 1975 movie “Hester Street,” about Jewish immigrants in New York in the early 20th century, was one Sam’s and his wife Betty’s favorites.

Sam loved providing clear, concise, practical, understandable legal advice to the INS Commissioner (then General Leonard Chapman, Jr., former Commandant of the Marine Corps) and various “operating divisions” of the INS in what was then known as the Central Office (“CO”). It likely came from his experience as a field officer who had to make decisions based on what came out of the CO. Gen. Chapman had Sam on “constant call” for legal advice.

Although Sam’s background was “old school up through the ranks,” he had a “new school” attitude and vision about the future of immigration law. Like his friend Maury Roberts at the BIA, Sam pioneered the use of the “Attorney General’s Honors Program” (of which I was a product) to bring a “new generation” of younger attorneys into the INS. That was later expanded by his immediate successors as General Counsel, David Crosland (Carter Administration) and Maurice C. “Mike” Inman, Jr. (Reagan Administration).

Sam had progressive views on using court decisions and common sense to make the immigration laws function better and easier to administer for everyone, at least in some small ways. One of the things we worked on was the “INS Efficiency Act,” originally introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in 1979 and eventually incorporated into the “Immigration & Nationality Act Amendments of 1981,” enacted into law by P.L. 97-116 (Dec. 29, 1981). 

This made a number of “common sense” fixes that Sam had noted over the years both by studying appellate court decisions and from answering recurring questions from INS operating divisions and DOJ litigation divisions handling our cases. It harkens back to a bygone time when public service in immigration was about “doing the right thing” and “promoting the common good” rather than advancing restrictionist ideological agendas.

My all-time favorite project with Sam was the July 1976 legal opinion approving and recommending the use of “prosecutorial discretion” by INS enforcement officials. This provided a sound legal basis for the INS’s “deferred action” program. Later, it formed part of the basis for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program that has so greatly benefitted both America and deserving young people while, at least for a short time, helping to bring some badly needed rationality, humanity, uniformity, and proper prioritization of resources to an all too often scattershot and out of control DHS enforcement program.

Although written by me, that opinion reflects the “essence of Sam” — enforcement with rationality, humanity, prudence, fairness, attention to the views of courts, and standards to prevent arbitrariness. A full copy of that 1976 memorandum is linked below. My initials are at the bottom of the last page. 

In light of all the nonsense making the rounds today, our conclusion is worth keeping in mind:

The power of various officers of the Executive Branch to exercise prosecutorial discretion is inherent and does not depend on express statutory authorization. . . . [T]he Service’s attempts to set forth some standards for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion are particularly appropriate.

My time in the General Counsel’s Office with Sam was all too short. He retired in 1977. At the time, he had 38 years of Federal service, but was only 57-years-old, with several more distinguished careers in front of him. 

Sam went on to become one of the “founding partners” and managing partner of the Washington, D.C. Office of the powerhouse national immigration firm Fragomen, Del Rey, & Bernsen, now the international law firm known as “Fragomen.” He also became a noted educator in the field, lecturing and writing for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”) and serving as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Catholic University and American University. I hired some of his former students in various capacities in some of my “future incarnations.”

Along the way, Sam tried to “recruit” me for his firm. But, I wasn’t quite ready to make the jump. Later, however, we did “reunite” for a short “transition period” when I succeeded him as the managing partner of Fragomen DC in 1993. 

What I remember most about Sam from our stint in private practice was how loyal his clients were and how much they trusted him with their fate and future. One of his greatest joys was working with students, young professionals, and student advisors on issues relating to F-1, J-1, and H-1 non-immigrant visas. We also did some projects relating to the interpretation of statutes and regulations that we had a role in drafting and enacting back in the General Counsel days. His clients and the Government officials he dealt with regarded Sam with reverence, as both the “ultimate authority” and the “total straight shooter,” a somewhat unusual combination for a lawyer in private practice.

Sam and I kept in touch for many years at AILA Conferences and other educational events, even after I rejoined Government in 1995 as Chair of the BIA. Sam was an avid tennis player, and from time to time I would run into folks who had met him in courts of both the tennis and legal variety. Indeed, Sam kindly served as the “featured speaker,” at my investiture as an Immigration Judge at the Arlington Immigration Court in June 2003. 

Along with folks like Maury Roberts, Ralph Farb, Charlie Gordon, Irv Applemen, and Louisa Wilson, Sam was one of my mentors and one of the all-time greats of American law. He represented a constructive, scholarly, and humane view of public service that has all but disappeared from the scene. Yet, he also saw into the future and was able to “reinvent himself” in new and dynamic ways after leaving public service. I had to do some of the same  and always looked to Sam as a role model.

Sam’s decisions, opinions, scholarship, and humanity helped shape generations of American immigration law. His work both in and out of Government changed the lives of thousands of immigrants for the better and helped build our nation into the diverse country it is today. His many students and those he mentored over the years, like me, continued his legacy and formed the forerunner of the “New Due Process Army.”

America and the world are richer and better because of Sam’s life and contributions. Sam knew the law, perhaps better than any other, and he used it to further humane goals whenever possible. Would that we had more role models like Sam in positions of responsibility and authority today! Sam, thanks for everything, and may you rest in peace after a “life very well lived!” 

Here is a link to our 1976 legal opinion on prosecutorial discretion:


Here’s a link to Sam’s full obituary in the Washington Post:"