Ever since I first sat in a Los Angeles movie theatre watching Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan's 1991 film, the only movie, to my knowledge, whose protagonist is an immigration lawyer, I knew I would mouth to myself, repeatedly over the ensuing years, one of its memorable lines. The main character, Mac (played by Kevin Kline), practices a rather pathetic and half-hearted version of deportation defense in the City of Angels. Consumed by existential angst and a career going nowhere, Mac sits in his law office and screams to his secretary and to himself: "I hate [bleep]ing immigration law!"
Don't get me wrong, after 30+ years as an immigration lawyer, I remain passionate about immigration and fulfilled in my career, mostly far closer to Emma Lazarus than to Mac. When the day's mail arrives, my heart still goes aflutter as official government envelopes are opened to reveal approval notices -- proxies for one client's or another's American Dream about to take wing.
This enjoyable ritual, alas, is increasingly disrupted by jarring correspondence from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) -- the dreaded Request for Additional Evidence (RFE). To be sure, a righteous RFE -- and some assuredly are -- is a good thing, offering a second chance to clarify what may have been less than clear in the initial submission.
A roguish, stupid or intellectually dishonest RFE, however, will cause me to erupt into silent, internal conniptions (I can't actually shout expletives in my law firm because that would likely create a hostile workplace and trigger multiple unpleasantries under state and federal law). Living in California, the land of holistic therapies, I know that anger swallowed often morphs into depression. To avoid that dreadful fate, I pen this post as a way to release outrage, stay healthy, and light a candle on RFE avoidance and response.
- Know the law and the non-law. While any immigration lawyer worth her salt understands the legal requirements to establish eligibility for the requested visa benefit, and knows how to muster supporting evidence, the RFE avoidant practitioner must also be familiar with the latest patterns among USCIS adjudicators in asking for legally irrelevant evidence. For example, no matter that the L-1 (intracompany transferee) visa is not one requiring a cash investment in a U.S. entity or a purchase of stock, expect that an adjudicator will request proof of funds transferred from abroad to buy a controlling interest in the petitioning business. Similarly, although the working owner of a U.S. limited liability company seeking an H-1B (specialty occupation) visa to run the business would almost never appoint a board of directors (since the LLC envisions flexible and speedy management decisions), make sure that your client goes to the expense and burden of appointing a board so that an "employer-employee" relationship of owner to LLC can be proven. Unfortunately, there is no treatise or hornbook that can help the hapless lawyer find out trends in RFE demands because these documents, though templated, change appearance as readily as chameleons. The only way to discern RFE trends (other than receiving them in bulk) is to network and share notes with other immigration lawyers.
- Manage client expectations. RFEs, if unanticipated, often can destroy relationships with existing and new clients. Good immigration lawyers inform the client of the possibility at the start of each engagement and each matter that USCIS will issue an RFE . The lawyer's scripted conversation with the client goes like this (with quote in italics): "There is a possibility -- no matter how well we prepare our filing -- that USCIS will ask for more evidence. You, client, have a business decision to make, and within reason, I will abide by your instructions. Either, we anticipate every imaginable item of evidence (based on evolving patterns of RFE requests) and adopt a kitchen-sink strategy in submitting our proof, which is the strategy I recommend, or, you can authorize me to request of you and submit to USCIS only the types of evidence reasonably necessary to establish legal eligibility for the immigration benefit you seek. We may or may not receive an RFE under either strategy. The government (acting godlike, but without the grace) behaves in mysterious ways. Your best chance of avoiding an RFE is by presenting as much evidence as possible."
- Make it easy for the adjudicator to "Get to Yes." Having gathered all possible evidence, the attorney should provide proofs in a logical and organized way. The attorney's covering letter (which the officer may or may not read) should be a roadmap to eligibility. It should refer to an index of clearly-tabbed and logically-organized documents, refer to facts evidenced in the record or attested to by the client, describe in summary form what each item of evidence purports to establish and why each is relevant. The attorney's letter should also cite the law, regulation, policy memorandum, guidance letter, legislative history, adjudicator's field manual, bar association liaison minutes or other source of legal authority that establishes eligibility under the proven facts. Here is a simple rule for staying out of legal trouble and RFE hell: Clients and third parties attest to the facts; lawyers refer to the facts elsewhere established in the submission, describe why each factoid of proof is relevant under law, and demonstrate why "yes" is the legally proper answer.
- Use word-pictures, graphics, charts and hyperlinks. Boring, sloppy, careless or poorly proofed writing pains and perturbs the reader. Vivid, logical, grammatically correct, stylish and persuasive writing pleases the reader. Text alone, however eloquently presented, may fail to make the desired impact. Eligibility under law is often more readily established if graphical images and links to web-based materials support the messaging of the text-based submission. The most likely way to enliven interest and avoid an RFE is to awaken an otherwise indifferent adjudicator, and provide compelling overt and subliminal reasons to approve the case.
- Humanize the case through honest storytelling. Contrary to some immigration lawyers' perceptions, adjudicators are human. While examiners may be more focused on behaviors that reward them personally such as reporting suspected fraud, way down deep, they may just be moved to identify with the human condition. If the adjudicator can be encouraged to see your client as a deserving human being, rather than just another file to be acted on before the end of the work day, maybe an RFE will not be sent, but an approval notice instead. Talk in the submission about the consequences of a "yes" or "no" decision to your client and to the country --whether that client is a company, a person, a family, a university or a religious community. Even adjudicators prefer to hold up their heads by doing the right and good thing rather than just adding another notch on their life-destroying revolver.
- Garner a reputation for zealous representation under law. Pushovers get pushed over. If an adjudicator knows you as a lawyer who will stand up for your client and wield the tools of the law skillfully to achieve a just outcome, there is less of a likelihood that a thoughtless or unjust RFE will come your way. Don't just give up, if the RFE or a denial is issued. Press on.
Notwithstanding your scrupulous adherence to the Boy Scout Code (Be Prepared), the postal worker may nonetheless deliver an RFE. After the inevitable silent cursing is over, the immigration practitioner and clients will pursue a course of action that may exhibit one or more of the following stratagems:
- Resist the temptation to respond sarcastically. Displays of temper or efforts at ridicule in response to RFEs meet with success as rarely as similar behaviors prevail with TSA officers.
- Distinguish boilerplate from customize text. Every RFE contains a mix of both. Consider the template text carefully (perhaps there's a grain of significance there), but focus on the specially drafted text that will likely reveal how carefully the adjudicator considered the evidence presented in the case. If the tailored portion of the RFE mischaracterized the factual record or failed to notice key evidence already presented, then plan on diplomatically noting these missteps in the response.
- Note whether the RFE contains assertions about legal requirements. If such claims are unsupported by citation to legal authority and misstate the law, then quote Kazarian v. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a 9th Circuit case which in essence rebukes USCIS for making stuff up. If the assertion differs from existing USCIS policy, point out the difference and cite Judulang v. Holder, a unanimous Supreme Court case declined to follow an immigration agency's position because the agency (in that case, the Board of Immigration Appeals) "has repeatedly vacillated in its method for applying" the law's requirements.
- Respond fully with fresh evidence. While re-arguing the significance of evidence originally submitted but treated as insufficient may occasionally succeed, the better approach is to rebut the interim conclusions suggested in the RFE with relevant and responsive evidence. The evidence may involve proof of company or industry practices, scientific accomplishments or contributions to the economic or other national interests of the United States. Whatever the issue of concern, take a fresh look at the best way to proffer the rebuttal evidence. Perhaps it should come from one or more outside experts of unquestioned accomplishment and repute, a forgotten immigration policy memo or guidance letter, the dusty legislative history of a law long ago enacted, the supplemental information in a proposed or final regulation, or a government agency outside the immigration world. Whatever the source, protect the administrative record with compelling evidence.
- Enlist government support or generate media scrutiny where appropriate. Sometimes RFEs are so off base that -- in addition to responding fully -- the practitioner may wish to enlist others in government with relevant authority. Perhaps the USCIS Ombudsman, a Headquarters official or a member of Congress may be interested in learning of and resolving anomalies in service delivery or clearly wayward RFEs. Alternatively, if the client is willing, resort to media focus (either traditional journalists or others proficient in social media) may be justified. These unusual approaches may be premature (for an approval notice may yet be forthcoming) or better pursued if a denial is issued.
Sometimes, the distance between an RFE and an approval notice are as wide as the Grand Canyon. Thus, immigration stakeholders (in the words of a Washington Post review of the eponymously titled film) should "consider the ever-widening chasms that divide us, [and] the shifting demographic fault lines that have set society quaking like the needle on Richter's scale." By employing the suggestions in this article, however, perhaps the distance will shrink and our clients' American Dreams will yet be fulfilled.