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Yith v. Wolf

United States District Court, E.D. California

December 6, 2019

SEANLIM YITH and SEAK LEANG YITH, Plaintiffs,
v.
CHAD F. WOLF, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER RE PLAINTIFFS' MOTIONS IN LIMINE

          LAWRENCE J. O'NEILL, UNITED STATES CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE

         Bench Trial: January 7, 2020 On November 13, 2019, Plaintiffs Seanlim Yith and Seak Leang Yith (“Plaintiffs”) filed three substantively related motions in limine. ECF No. 120. On November 22, 2019, Defendants[1] filed their opposition to the motions. The bench trial is set for January 7, 2019, and is estimated to take one to two (1-2) days. ECF No. 119 at 2. The matter is before the Court pursuant to 8 U.S.C § 1447(b) due to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services' (“USCIS”) failure to make a determination on Plaintiffs' naturalization applications within 120 days after the Plaintiffs' examination.[2] Plaintiffs are siblings and citizens of Cambodia and entered the United States in 2006 as children ages 14 and 11 at the time. ECF No. 88 at 2. The trial asks the Court to make a determination on whether Plaintiffs have met the requirements for naturalization such that their naturalization applications should be granted. Furthermore, it appears the only naturalization requirement that is in dispute is whether Plaintiffs can demonstrate that they were lawfully admitted for permanent residence at the time they were admitted as permanent residents. Defendants contend that Plaintiffs were inadmissible at the time they were admitted as permanent residents because their approved petitions for admission were based on the invalid marriage of Plaintiffs' father, Neth Yith, and Sarin Meas, a U.S. citizen and Plaintiffs' stepmother. ECF No. 121 at 2. Plaintiffs motions in limine appear to take the position that the question of whether or not their father's marriage was valid should have no bearing on question of whether they were “lawfully admitted” for the purposes of naturalization requirements since they were children at the time they entered the United States and had no knowledge concerning the marriage one way or the other and have no ability to prove its validity at this point in time. See generally ECF No. 120.

         Plaintiffs' motions in limine essentially ask the Court to define the legal contours of what evidence Plaintiffs must present to meet their burden of proof under 8 U.S.C § 1429 to show that they have been “lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence in accordance with all applicable provisions of this chapter” in order to satisfy one of the prerequisites for naturalization. 8 U.S.C. § 1429. ECF No. 120 at 6. The motions in limine all revolve around this one discrete element of Plaintiffs' eligibility for naturalization. Id.[3]

         The requirements for naturalization are set forth at 8 U.S.C. § 1427. To be eligible for naturalization, an applicant must show, among other things, that he has been “lawfully admitted for permanent residence.” 8 U.S.C. § 1427(a)(1); see also 8 C.F.R. § 316.2(a)(2). Additionally, 8 U.S.C. § 1429 further elaborates on the prerequistes for naturalization and allocates the burden of proof for naturalization. The statute provides:

[N]o person shall be naturalized unless he has been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence in accordance with all applicable provisions of this chapter. The burden of proof shall be upon such person to show that he entered the United States lawfully, and the time, place, and manner of such entry into the United States, but in presenting such proof he shall be entitled to the production of his immigrant visa, if any, or of other entry document, if any, and of any other documents and records, not considered by the Attorney General to be confidential, pertaining to such entry, in the custody of the Service.

8 U.S.C. § 1429. The burden of proof is on the applicant to show his eligibility for citizenship, including the requirement that the applicant has been “lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence” Id.; see also Berenyi v. Dist. Dir., Immigration & Naturalization Serv., 385 U.S. 630, 637 (1967) (“it has been universally accepted that the burden is on the alien applicant to show his eligibility for citizenship in every respect.”). The applicant generally meets this burden if he shows by a preponderance of the evidence that he has satisfied all of the requirements to become a United States citizen. See 8 C.F.R. § 316.2(b) (“The applicant shall bear the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she meets all of the requirements for naturalization, including that the applicant was lawfully admitted as a permanent resident to the United States…”). The term “lawfully admitted for permanent residence” is defined as “the status of having been lawfully accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the United States as an immigrant in accordance with the immigration laws, such status not having changed.” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(20). “[T]here must be strict compliance with all congressionally-imposed prerequisites before an applicant may acquire citizenship.” Fedorenko v. United States, 449 U.S. 490, 506 (1981). Generally, doubts regarding eligibility should be resolved in favor of the United States. Berenyi, 385 U.S. at 637.

         Plaintiffs' first motion in limine asks the Court to find that the statutory burden of proof on Plaintiffs to prove that they were lawfully admitted as permanent residents is met by proving their lawful entry after having been granted permanent resident status. Plaintiffs argue that if the Court does not make such a ruling on the motion in limine there is a possibility that their due process rights may be impaired and that they would also be exposed to unfair prejudice under Federal Rule of Evidence 403. ECF No. 120 at 8. Plaintiffs state that their procedural due process rights would be implicated if they are precluded from meeting their burden of proof for naturalization by factors that are not within their control or right of access. Id. at 6. Plaintiffs further submit that if the Court does not grant this motion in limine they would be required to prove a negative in the course of proving they were lawfully admitted such that they would be required to show that their admission was not dependent on marriage fraud and/or fraud by a USCIS officer. Id. at 7. Plaintiffs argue the proposed in limine rulings would prevent any potential constitutional issues from arising with respect to the two statutes, 8 U.S.C. §§ 1427 and 1429. Id. at 8.

         Plaintiffs' second motion in limine parallelly argues that the Court should exclude testimony and documentary evidence other than testimony and evidence showing that Plaintiffs were given documentation by the USCIS establishing their legal permanent resident status, that they never abandoned that status, and that no administrative or judicial determination has ever altered that status. ECF No. 120 at 17. This argument turns in part on Plaintiffs' contention that an evidentiary exclusion should apply to any evidence of a nonparty's actions of fraud except for third party actions for which there has been a final determination after a full and fair opportunity to litigate in either an administrative or judicial proceeding. Id. at 9. Plaintiffs argue that this is necessary so that Plaintiffs are not penalized for the wrongdoing of a third party who is not a party to this proceeding such that constitutional due process problems arise. Id. “[F]or reasons of procedural due process the litigant should never be placed in the position of having to prove, in order to spare himself his own penalty, that another individual did not commit fraud.” Id. at 25. While Plaintiffs' first motion in limine deals with what Plaintiffs need to produce to meet their burden to show that they were lawfully admitted, the second is not any different in that it also revolves around the same legal issue and requests the Court exclude any evidence that does not comport with their request in the first motion in limine. These two motions go hand in hand.

         As Plaintiffs' third motion in limine, they submit if the prior two motions are denied, the Court should at the very least implement a burden shifting framework with respect to the lawfully admitted requirement. Specifically, the Plaintiffs request that once they establish that their permanent resident status was granted before entering the U.S. and that they never abandoned or were stripped of that status, “that the burden of proof (preferably) or at least the burden of production (less preferably) will shift to Defendants to show that Plaintiffs were not lawfully admitted as permanent residents.” ECF No. 120 at 27. Plaintiffs contend that if the Court does not grant this motion they would be forced into untenable speculation about all the different reasons why Defendants might say their admission was unlawful. Id. Plaintiffs indicate that they know little about what Defendants will claim proves the unlawfulness of their admission. Id. at 28.

         In opposition, Defendants submit that Plaintiffs have not met the high standard for excluding evidence pre-trial, particularly since this is a bench trial. ECF No. 121 at 3. Defendants point out that two of the main purposes of motions in limine, protecting the jury and saving time, are not served in this case. Id. Defendants argue that any evidentiary ruling should be deferred until trial so that the “questions of foundation, relevancy and potential prejudice may be resolved in proper context.” ECF No. 121 at 6 (quoting Mitchell v. Rosario, No. 2:09-CV-03012-RCJ, 2015 WL 6706776, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Nov. 2, 2015)). Additionally, Defendants submit that the Plaintiffs' proposed in limine rulings are not in accord with the statutory text or relevant case law. Id. at 8-14. The Court agrees with Defendants that its time and effort is more efficiently used by addressing objections to actual evidence submitted at trial rather than making a preemptive general ruling on the motions in limine about evidence the Defendants may or may not present. Plaintiffs' generalized and blanket motions in limine are not effective tools for limiting evidence that very well may be required for Plaintiffs to meet their burden to establish one of the requirements for naturalization - lawful admission.

         In addition, Plaintiffs' positions in the motions in limine are not well supported by authority. Plaintiffs' proposal in their first motion in limine that they must only show lawful entry after being granted permanent residence, presumably by simply presenting their legal permanent resident card, is not what the statutory text nor controlling case law provides. Monet v. I.N.S., 791 F.2d 752, 753 (9th Cir. 1986) (“[A] narrow reading of the term ‘lawfully admitted' distorts its meaning. Admission is not lawful if it is regular only in form. The term ‘lawfully' denotes compliance with substantive legal requirements, not mere procedural regularity, ....”) (quoting In re Longstaff, 716 F.2d 1439, 1441 (5th Cir.1983), cert. denied, 467 U.S. 1219 (1984)); Jin Mei Lin v. Napolitano, No. CIV.A. 11-6373, 2013 WL 2370588, at *4 (E.D. Pa. May 31, 2013), aff'd sub nom. Jin Mei Lin v. Sec'y U.S. Dep't of Homeland Sec., 613 Fed.Appx. 207 (3d Cir. 2015) (holding that petitioners' contention that their admission as legal permanent residents was sufficient to meet the statutory requirements for naturalization regardless ofwhether their admission was in compliance with the substantive legal requirements for such admission was “contrary to clearly defined law, and d[id] not warrant judgment in Petitioners' favor”) (citing Martinez v. Att'y Gen. of the U.S., 693 F.3d 408, 414 (3d Cir. 2012)). As the Defendants have pointed out in their opposition and as the Court's review of the cited cases indicates, “[t]he overwhelming caselaw establishes that a grant of permanent resident status is not dispositive of th[e] requirement” of determining whether an alien has been lawfully admitted for naturalization eligibility. ECF No. 121 at 2.

         The Board of Immigration Appeals has found that an alien has not been “lawfully admitted for permanent residence” where he “obtained [his] permanent resident status by fraud, or had otherwise not been entitled to it.” In re Koloamatangi, 23 I & N Dec. 548 (BIA 2003). The Ninth Circuit has also adopted this interpretation along with several other circuits. Kyong Ho Shin v. Holder, 607 F.3d 1213, 1217 (9th Cir. 2010); Lucaj v. Dedvukaj, 13 F.Supp.3d 753, 766 (E.D. Mich. 2014) (“Several circuits have relied on Koloamatangi's interpretation of ‘lawfully admitted for permanent residence' and have consistently held that to be ‘lawfully admitted for permanent residence' requires that the person have complied with the substantive legal requirements in place at the time he or she was admitted”) (collecting cases). Plaintiffs' arguments to the contrary are unpersuasive and they have not provided legal authority to support their position. One of the major distinctions Plaintiffs attempt to make of the facts of their case with other cases is that they personally did not commit any fraud and had no knowledge of any fraud since they were children when they were admitted. However, the Ninth Circuit has found that this distinction of personal involvement makes no difference when determining whether someone was “lawfully admitted.” See Shin, 607 F.3d at 1217 (“Although the facts of both Monet and Koloamatangi involve acts of personal fraud or misrepresentation, their holdings broadly deem all grants of LPR status that were not in substantive compliance with the immigration laws to be void ab initio.”). Plaintiffs' attempt to differentiate Shin fails. ECF No. 120 at 15. Plaintiff has not provided a convincing reason for how this case can be differentiated from the cited cases and also appears to ignore the statutory language itself by making a due process and unfair prejudice argument. Neither the statutory text nor case law interpreting it supports Plaintiffs' argument that they must only present evidence of their lawful entry to meet their burden.

         Plaintiffs' argument that they would have to prove there was “no unlawfulness[, ]” involved in their grant of permanent residence, which Plaintiffs refer to as a requirement to prove a negative, is also a mischaracterization. ECF No. 120 at 12-13. Plaintiffs do not need to prove a negative but rather must prove they were lawfully admitted. Here, Plaintiffs received their permanent residence status on the basis that they were the stepchildren of U.S. citizen Sarin Meas. A stepchild relationship must be based on a marriage that was at some point valid. See Matter of Awwal, 19 I. & N. Dec. 617, 621 (BIA 1988) (“[A] marriage which is a sham from the outset cannot form the basis for a steprelationship under [the INA].”); see also Matter of Teng, 15 I. & N. Dec. 516, 519 (BIA 1975) (concluding the same and also finding “[t]he fact that the respondents may be innocent of any fraudulent intent does not protect them.”). In the case where the validity of a marriage is at issue, the applicant must present sufficient evidence that the marriage was bona fide in that it was “not sham or fraudulent from its inception.” Agyeman v. I.N.S., 296 F.3d 871, 883 (9th Cir. 2002) (detailing types of evidence that may prove bona fides of marriage besides spouse's testimony including joint tax returns, shared bank accounts or credit cards, or telephone bills). The key issue in determining whether a marriage is valid is whether the parties intended to establish a life together when they exchanged marriage vows. Bark v. I.N.S., 522 F.3d 1200, 1202 (9th Cir. 1975); Damon v. Ashcroft, 360 F.3d 1084, 1089 (9th Cir. 2004) (“The sole inquiry in determining whether a marriage was entered into in good faith is whether the parties intended to establish a life together at the time of marriage.”). Post-marriage conduct may also be relevant insofar as it reveals the parties' intent at the time they married. Bark, 522 F.3d at 1202. Plaintiffs' burden here is not to prove a negative or to rebut every potential possibility of fraud that the government may present but to show that they were lawfully admitted.[4]

         Plaintiffs do not cite to any case that supports their position that a stepchild's lack of wrongdoing or lack of direct knowledge mitigates the requirement of establishing Plaintiffs' lawful admission as permanent residents.[5] While the facts of this case do appear to be somewhat unique, the legal issues that Plaintiffs seeks to have addressed have been dealt with by other courts, including the issue of when a naturalization applicant is not guilty of and unaware of any wrongdoing by a third-party. See, e.g., Jin Mei Lin, No. CIV.A. 11-6373, 2013 WL 2370588, at *3-*4 (finding Plaintiffs stepchildren could not demonstrate their eligibility for naturalization because their father's ...


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