The US legal doctrine of consular nonreviewability leads to over a million people being refused visas every year, with no legal avenue to challenge the consular officer’s decision, no matter how arbitrary, prejudiced, or groundless it may be. But beyond affecting these foreigners’ lives, there are real effects on US citizens too. One effect of racial segregation which social justice discussions often gloss over is how unjust laws oppressed not just the visible immediate victims, but also others, ostensibly privileged, who wished to engage with the oppressed. Such is the case with immigration laws around the world today. US legal precedent is especially enlightening here.
Filipino-Hawaiian lawyer Emmanuel Samonte Tipon last year blogged a useful overview of relevant cases touching on when someone might have legal standing to sue for judicial review of a visa application. Let’s go over them one by one.
- Sabataityte v. Powell: Sabataityte was denied a visa because the Warsaw consulate believed she had been previously unlawfully present in the US. She challenged this determination. The courts ruled that regardless of the merits, she had no right to mount such a challenge.
- Saavedra Bruno v. Albright: Saavedra was denied a visa, and had another visa revoked, because the US government believed he had previously illicitly trafficked drugs (based on a hit when they searched his name in a database). This was news to Saavedra and his American employer, both of whom sued the government to present the evidence so they could challenge the determination that he was a drug trafficker. The courts ruled that both Saavedra and his American employer had no legal basis to confront the claims against him or challenge the visa refusal.
- Hermina Sague v. United States: Sague, a citizen, married Berger, a Frenchman, and applied to permit him to enter the US so they could live together as a family. The government denied Berger a visa, and Sague sued, insisting she had a right as a citizen to live with her husband in the US. The courts ruled that it was impossible to challenge the consular refusal and moreover, based on legal precedent, “there is no constitutional right of a citizen spouse … to have her alien spouse enter the United States.” Perhaps even more perversely, “once an alien has entered our jurisdiction, even illegally, he may only be expelled after proceedings conforming to the traditional standards of fairness encompassed in due process of law. However … ‘an alien on the threshold of initial entry stands on a different footing.'” In other words, if you want due process, you need to enter the US illegally.
- Centeno v. Shultz: Centeno, a Filipino citizen, applied for a visa to visit his American family, and was denied. He and Coane, his American brother-in-law, sued to appeal this decision, arguing that the decision was arbitrary and violated Coane’s first amendment rights to engage in discussion with his brother-in-law. (You laugh, but violation of citizens’ first amendment rights is one of the few grounds citizens have to challenge consular officers’ decisions.) The US Court of Appeal essentially laughed Centeno and Coane out of court in a one-page decision.
- Patel v. Reno: Patel, a US citizen, applied for visas for his non-citizen wife and children. The government, suspecting Patel had obtained citizenship by fraudulent means, instructed the consulate in Mumbai to place Patel’s application in limbo, where it laid for 8 years. The courts ruled that since no final decision had been made, this visa application was subject to judicial review. Since the application had been in suspended state for 8 years, the courts ordered the consulate to make a final decision on whether to grant the application within 30 days. At the same time, the courts affirmed that not even the Secretary of State had the power to overturn the visa decision once it had been made.
- Kleindienst v. Mandel: A seminal case in US immigration law. Mandel was a Belgian Marxist who had travelled to the US many times to speak. In 1969 he applied for a visa and was refused on grounds of his politics. He and the citizens who had invited him to speak sued, citing amongst other factors, the government’s denial of the citizens’ first amendment rights to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that an infringement of first amendment rights could be grounds for judicial review; broadly, the consular decision on a visa application must have “a facially legitimate and bona fide reason”. Immigration lawyers regard this as a landmark case for immigrant rights, but in reality, the Supreme Court went on to say that allowing Mandel his visa on first amendment grounds risked destroying the doctrine of consular nonreviewability, since by definition virtually all immigration restrictions infringe on citizens’ first amendment rights. The court then held that Mandel was not entitled to judicial review of the consular decision.
- Udugampola v. Jacobs: Udugampola, a US citizen, applied for an immigrant visa for her non-citizen father. The government initially approved the petition, but at the consular interview, the officer there denied the visa because he suspected her father of terrorism. Udugampola and her mother (also a legal immigrant to the US) sued the government. The courts ruled that neither Udugampola’s rights as a daughter nor her mother’s rights as a wife were constitutionally-protected in this case, and they had no basis to challenge the consular decision.
A common thread runs through all these: no matter whose interest are at stake, there is virtually no right to question a consular decision, even if it is based on flimsy evidence or is egregiously wrong. Even if it splits up a marriage, the government has absolute totalitarian power. And these are just the cases which get as far as prominent courts in the US. How many thousands of families must there be, lives ruined by immigration law, around the world? How can any self-respecting person in this day and age reconcile the outright disdain immigration law has for our families and communities with modern ideals of liberty and human rights?
The photograph featured at the top of this post is of Mario Chavez embracing his wife Lizeth through the US-Mexico border fence at Playas de Tijuana. The original photograph is copyright David Maung, and was published by Human Rights Watch; a higher-resolution version is available at their website.