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Budhathoki v. Nielsen

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 1, 2018

DEEPAK BUDHATHOKI, CLESMY E. CANALES GONZALES, KATHERINE YURLIETH TURCIOS-PEREZ, on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated persons. Plaintiffs - Appellants
KIRSTJEN M. NIELSEN, SECRETARY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, Director of Department of Homeland Security, in his official capacity; LEON RODRIGUEZ, Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, in his official capacity; MARIO R. ORTIZ, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services District Director for San Antonio, in his official capacity, Defendants - Appellees

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

          Before STEWART, Chief Judge, CLEMENT and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.


         The plaintiffs appeal the dismissal of their suit challenging a federal agency's denial of their applications for a specific immigrant status. They argue the agency erred when it determined that orders each applicant received from a Texas state court did not qualify them for the status. We AFFIRM.


         Deepak Budhathoki, born in August 1996, is a native of Nepal. Clesmy Gonzales, born in November 1996, is a native of Honduras. Katharine Yurlieth Turcios-Perez, born in June 1994, is a native of Honduras. These plaintiffs, who were each over the age of 18, filed what a Texas statute labels Suits Affecting Parent-Child Relationship ("SAPCR"). Tex. Fam. Code § 101.032. Although the Texas Family Code generally defines child or minor as "a person under 18 years of age who is not and has not been married or who has not had the disabilities of minority removed for general purposes," id. § 101.003(a), it also provides: "In the context of child support, 'child' includes a person over 18 years of age for whom a person may be obligated to pay child support," id. § 101.003(b) (emphasis added). Thus, child support can be sought in a SAPCR suit for someone over 18 years old. See id. § 154.006(a).

         In the SAPCR suits, which were filed in three different Travis County district courts, [1] the state courts awarded child support and made certain findings. First, the applicants were not yet 21 and were unmarried. Second, all applicants had been abandoned by their parents. Finally, returning to their home countries was not in their best interest. The state courts also retained jurisdiction over the plaintiffs until certain events occurred, such as marriage, death, joining the army, and either graduating from high school or turning 18, whichever occurred later.

         After the plaintiffs received the state court SAPCR orders, they filed Special Immigrant Juvenile ("SIJ") status petitions with the United States Customs and Immigration Services ("USCIS" or "agency"). We will discuss that status later. The agency requested more evidence to demonstrate if "the dependency order is valid under Texas state law, given the applicant's age." Because each plaintiff "had reached 18 years of age prior to obtaining the SAPCR," the agency needed "evidence that the court order was issued in compliance with state law governing juvenile court dependency" as the law requires.

         The plaintiffs responded to the requests for evidence. Subsequently, a Field Officer Director denied each petition and gave notice of the right to an administrative appeal. Instead, plaintiffs[2] filed suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, seeking "declaratory relief regarding the definition of 'child' under Texas state law and the proper interpretation and application of the terms 'juvenile court' and 'dependent,' as those terms are defined by federal law."[3] Concluding that the SAPCR orders were not proper ones to support SIJ status, the district court granted defendants' motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs timely appealed.


         A district court's grant of a motion to dismiss is reviewed de novo. Wampler v. Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 597 F.3d 741, 744 (5th Cir. 2010). Review of an agency's "administrative decision is conducted according to the deferential standards of the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"), which permits the setting aside of agency actions, findings, and conclusions that are 'arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law' or 'unsupported by substantial evidence.'" Cedar Lake Nursing Home v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 619 F.3d 453, 456 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting 5 U.S.C. §§ 706(2)(A)-(E)).

         The plaintiffs make these arguments: (1) both the agency and the district court ignored limitations on their actions imposed by the APA and by federal common law rules of preclusion; (2) the district court did not have the full administrative record, so remand is warranted; and (3) this court should consider certain documents that were not before the district court. We will take those arguments in order after first providing context for SIJ status.

         The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990 included a new form of immigration relief for non-citizen children. SIJ status provides a path for certain children to become lawful residents of the United States. The statute has been amended several times since 1990. To understand what the statute requires now, it is useful to know about the initial concept of SIJ status and how it has evolved. For an overview, we refer to the USCIS Policy Manual, "which is the agency's centralized online repository for USCIS's immigration policies." U.S. Citizen and Immigration Serv., Policy Manual, "About the Policy Manual" (2017), 2014 WL 10102392. The Manual governs the USCIS in the following ways:

The USCIS Policy Manual contains the official policies of USCIS and must be followed by all USCIS officers in the performance of their duties. The Policy Manual does not create any substantive or procedural right or benefit that is legally enforceable by any party against the United States or its agencies or officers or any other person.


         The 1990 enactment "[e]stablished an SIJ classification for children declared dependent upon a juvenile court in the United States, eligible for long-term foster care, and for whom it would not be in their best interest to return to their country of origin." 6 U.S. Citizen and Immigration Serv., Policy Manual J.1, "Purpose and Background" (2017), 2017 WL 443002. The statute initially required the child to be declared dependent upon the court and to be eligible for foster care. Id. Then, the 1994 amendments "[e]xpanded eligibility from those declared dependent on a juvenile court to children whom such a court has legally committed to, or placed under the custody of, a state agency or department." Id. In 1998, the statute was amended again in order to "[l]imit[] eligibility to children declared dependent on the court because of abuse, neglect, or abandonment." Id.

         In 2008, the most recent statutory amendments "[e]xpanded eligibility to include children whom a juvenile court has placed under the custody of a person or entity appointed by a state or juvenile court." Id. Now, SIJ status is available to

an immigrant who is present in the United States -
(i) who has been declared dependent on a juvenile court located in the United States or whom such a court has legally committed to, or placed under the custody of, an agency or department of a State, or an individual or entity appointed by a State or juvenile court located in the United States, and whose reunification with 1 or both of the immigrant's parents is not viable due to abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a similar basis found under State law.

8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(27)(J). By regulation, a juvenile court is "a court located in the United States having jurisdiction under State law to make judicial determinations about the custody and care of juveniles." 8 C.F.R. § 204.11(a).

         Once the applicant has the necessary predicate order, he must submit his application to the agency, attaching the state court order. See id. § 204.11(d).[4] The petitioner bears the burden of establishing eligibility. 8 U.S.C. § 1361. A successful application also requires the consent of the Secretary of Homeland Security to the grant of the SIJ status, which can be given through directors of USCIS. See 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(27)(J)(iii).

         Thus, a state court must make initial determinations, and the USCIS then considers if they match the requirements for SIJ status. See David B. Thronson, Kids Will Be Kids? Reconsidering Conceptions of Children's Rights Underlying Immigration Law, 63 Ohio St. L.J. 979, 1004 (2002). Our questions are whether the right kind of court issued the right kind of order.

         1. Review under the Administrative Procedures Act

         The plaintiffs make several arguments that are based on constraints imposed on agencies themselves and on courts when reviewing agency decisions. Though the plaintiffs did not break their arguments into quite these segments, the following identifies the administrative law issues in the order in which we will discuss them. (A) The USCIS acted beyond its authority in deciding that the state courts did not have jurisdiction to enter the orders to support SIJ status for these plaintiffs and that the court orders did not make the necessary findings. (B) Regardless of what the USCIS could decide, the state courts had jurisdiction and the orders contained the proper findings. (C) The district court substituted its reasoning in upholding the USCIS decision instead of analyzing the allegedly flawed reasoning actually used by the agency. (D) The USCIS acted arbitrarily and capriciously.

         A. Agency authority to determine sufficiency of state court's order

         The plaintiffs argue that the USCIS exceeded its statutory authority by concluding they had failed to show that the Texas state court had jurisdiction. That finding was stated in the final paragraph of the agency's denial of SIJ status:

In conclusion, as the evidence submitted in conjunction with your I-360 petition and response to the [Request for Evidence], is insufficient to meet your burden of showing that the SAPCR included with your SIJ petition was issued pursuant to the court's jurisdiction over you as a ...

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