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Jeffrey S. Chase on Pangea v. DHS: The Power of Comments

December 02, 2020 (5 min read)

Jeffrey S. Chase, Dec. 2, 2020

"The constant stream of proposed regulations relating to our immigration laws has led to a continuous call to the public to submit comments to those rules.  Individuals and organizations have responded in large numbers, in spite of the short 30 day comment windows this administrative has generally afforded.  For those who have questioned the purpose of submitting comments or have wondered if the effort was worth it, I point to the recent decision of U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston in the Northern District of California in Pangea Legal Services v. DHS granting a temporary restraining order against regulations that classify a wide range of crimes as bars to asylum eligibility.

As background, I would like to point to the explanation of the notice and comment procedures provided by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy J. Kelly last year in CAIR Coalition v. Trump.  In that case, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security attempted to bypass the process by publishing final rules with no opportunity to comment.  Judge Kelly (who happens to be a Trump appointee) found that the avoidance of comments invalidated the regulations, explaining that the “procedures are not a mere formality.  They are designed (1) to ensure that agency regulations are tested via exposure to diverse public comment; (2) to ensure fairness to affected parties, and (3) to give affected parties an opportunity to develop evidence in the record to support their objections to the rule and thereby enhance the quality of judicial review.”

It is further worth noting that comments become part of the public record, and that the Administrative Procedures Act requires the agency to respond to all significant comments before the regulations can become final.

In accordance with this scheme, a brief comment period was provided as to the regulations covered in Pangea.  The proposed rule sought to expand the category of “particularly serious crimes” that Congress has designated as a bar to asylum.  Instead of allowing immigration judges to make such determinations on a case-by-case basis, the new rule sought to add a broad range of criminal conduct that the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security originally argued should categorically bar asylum as particularly serious crimes.

Commenters pointed out the flaws with this proposal, not the least of which was some of the offenses are not particularly serious.  The crimes include harboring certain noncitizens (even if they are family members), or possessing or using false identity documents (for example, to work and support one’s family).  These offenses are a far cry from the type of behavior that would pose such a threat to society as to outweigh the obligation to provide refugee protection.  In publishing the final rule, the Departments did acknowledge these concerns raised in the comments.  However, as explained above, more than mere acknowledgement was required.

Although Judge Illston found numerous reasons to support the granting of the temporary restraining order, one of those reasons was the Departments’ failure to respond to the above comments as required.  As Judge Illston wrote, “when commenters pointed out that the new bars would include minor conduct and conduct that cannot be categorized as particularly serious or even dangerous, the Departments either declined to respond or else relied on their authority under § 1158(b)(2)(C).”

In other words, when the comments received caused the Departments to realize that their claimed justification for the rule under the statute’s “particularly serious crime” provision was problematic, instead of addressing those comments as they were required to do, the agencies instead replied “Particularly serious crimes?  Is that what you thought we said?  We meant they were similar to particularly serious crimes.  Sorry for the confusion; let’s just say the changes fall under section 1158(b)(2)(C) for the sake of clarity.”

That section which  the Departments now chose to rely on contains vague language allowing the Attorney General to establish by regulation “additional limitations and exceptions, consistent with this section” under which noncitizens might be ineligible for asylum.  The Departments might not have noticed the words “consistent with this section,” which would seem to rule out their disregarding the fact that Congress had allowed only a few narrow statutory limitations to the right to asylum that tend to be consistent with international law.  That might explain their reading of the clause as an invitation to impose any limitation on asylum the Departments desired, with no regard to international law obligations.

But besides from the permissibility of the Departments’ interpretation of the clause, Judge Illston categorized their tactics as evasion.  The judge wrote that “the Departments initially stated they were relying in part on their authority to designate new offenses as particularly serious crimes. They then disclaimed reliance on that authority but said the new offenses were ‘similar to’ particularly serious crimes... And they declined to address commenters’ concerns that the Rule now bars crimes that do not rise to the level of particularly serious because, according to the Departments, they are not, in fact, designating new particularly serious crimes and any comments to that point ‘are outside the scope of this rulemaking.’”

Much thanks are owed to the lawyers and organizations who litigated and filed supporting briefs in Pangea; they managed to block yet another effort by this administration that sought to undermine the very nature of refugee protection.  But thanks are also due to those who took the time and effort to submit comments.  Hopefully, this will provide inspiration to continue to submit comments to new regulations still being proposed in these final days before what will hopefully be a return to normalcy, decency, and respect for the rule of law."

Copyright 2020 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.  Jeffrey S. Chase is an immigration lawyer in New York City.  Jeffrey is a former Immigration Judge and Senior Legal Advisor at the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is the founder of the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges, which was awarded AILA’s 2019 Advocacy Award. Jeffrey is also a past recipient of AILA’s Pro Bono Award. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Deportation Defense Attorneys, and Central American Legal Assistance.