Eleventh Circuit Interprets Provision of Immigration and Nationality Act as Eliminating Remarriage Bar to Immigration Status Adjustment

In Williams v. Sec’y, No. 13-11270 (Jan. 17, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit considered whether the remarriage bar in 8 U.S.C. § 1151(b)(2)(A)(i) applied to an application to adjust immigration status in light of the recently enacted 8 U.S.C. § 1154(l), which allows the reopening of a beneficiary-petition that has been denied because the qualifying U.S. citizen petitioner had died.

The facts of this case are complex, but they help clarify the issue. This case involved a Brazilian citizen, Ms. Pascoal, attempting to adjust her immigration status to lawful permanent resident.  In 2002 her husband, an American citizen, filed an I-130 beneficiary-petition, which allows a U.S. citizen to have a qualifying relative (such as a spouse) classified as an “immediate relative” so that the relative may then file an application to adjust his/her immigration status. Ms. Pascoal also filed an I-485 application to adjust her status to lawful permanent resident, and her husband filed an affidavit in support. However, her husband died in 2003 before a final decision was made on the petition and application, so Ms. Pascoal was no longer classified as an immediate relative and her petition was denied. She was, however, allowed to file an I-360 self-petition allowing a surviving spouse of a U.S. citizen to file to adjust immigration status. The statute’s “immediate relatives” definition required the alien spouse to have been married to the citizen for at least two years, which Ms. Pascoal had not. Ms. Pascoal later remarried from August 2009 to April 2010. Following this marriage, Ms. Pascoal attempted to reopen her I-130 petition that her deceased husband had filed on her behalf based on a newly enacted provision at § 1154(l) allowing people like Ms. Pascoal to reopen an earlier filed beneficiary-petition that had been denied because of the death of the qualifying citizen-relative. The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) denied Ms. Pascoal’s motion to reopen due to her remarriage, which removed her from the definition of “immediate relative” in § 1151(b)(2)(A)(i). The Middle District of Florida granted summary judgment to the DHS, interpreting the statute as preventing Ms. Pascoal from adjusting her immigration status.

The Eleventh Circuit found that the language of the statute is clear and supports Ms. Pascoal’s position. The language of § 1154(l) establishes eligibility for status adjustment immediately prior to the death of the qualifying relative. Since Ms. Pascoal was an immediate relative prior to the death of her husband, she qualifies to reopen her petition under the statute. Additionally, there is no explicit remarriage bar in § 1154(l). In contrast, the amendment section that adjusted the definition of “immediate relatives,” which was passed at the same time as the section creating § 1154(l), reiterates in its text the remarriage bar. Because § 1154(l) requires the application of the definition of “immediate relatives” prior to the death of the qualifying relative, the part of the definition that applies after the relative’s death is irrelevant. Finally, the court found that the overarching statutory structure further supports the position that § 1154(l) allows Ms. Pascoal to reopen her petition.

The court reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded for entry of judgment in favor of Ms. Pascoal.

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