Hassling with the Hague Convention: Part II

BACKGROUND

Michelle Monasky, a U.S. citizen, married to Domenico Taglieri, an Italian citizen, faced repeated domestic abuse and assault before and during her pregnancy. After Monasky returned to the United States with her and Taglieri’s two-month-old daughter, Taglieri filed a petition under the Hague Convention seeking the daughter’s return to Italy. The court granted Taglieri’s petition, finding that Italy was the baby’s habitual residence.

Monasky sought a stay of the return order, which was denied first by the Sixth Circuit and then by the Supreme Court. Therefore, the daughter was returned to Italy, where an Italian court in an ex parte proceeding had terminated Monasky’s parental rights and made Taglieri “sole custodian with full parental rights” over the daughter.

After a panel of the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, the Sixth Circuit agreed to a rehearing en banc. Applying a different standard than the district court, the Sixth Circuit majority held in Taglieri v. Monasky (2018) that “the parents’ shared intent” determines whether an infant, who is too young to acclimate to her surroundings, has attained a habitual residence in the country from which she was removed. The majority went on to hold that “shared parental intent” does not require the parents to have a “meeting of the minds’ about their child’s future home.” According to the majority, “[a]n absence of a subjective agreement between the parents does not by itself end the inquiry” because a subjective agreement, while sufficient, is “not a necessary…basis for locating an infant’s habitual residence.”

Even though the Sixth Circuit had not previously adopted a “shared parental intent” standard to determine the habitual residence of infants—and even though a remand is normally “required” when the Sixth Circuit adopts a different legal standard than that applied by the district court—the en banc majority declined to remand the case for the district court to apply its new standard to the facts of this case.

THE ISSUE

When an infant is too young to acclimate to her surroundings, is a subjective agreement between the infant’s parents necessary to establish her habitual residence under the Hague Convention?

THE SPLIT

The Second, Third, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits have addressed the question of how to determine habitual residence for infants too young to acclimate to their surroundings. Each concluded that habitual residence is established only if the parents shared a subjective intent—meaning if they reached a meeting of the minds—to raise the child in that country.

The Second Circuit held in Gitter v. Gitter (2005), that absent evidence that a child had acclimated to her surroundings, “a child’s habitual residence is consistent with the intentions of those entitled to fix the child’s residence at the time those intentions were mutually shared.” Applying that standard, the court concluded that because the parents “only mutually agreed to move to Israel on a conditional basis,” their child could only have attained habitual residence in Israel through acclimatization.

Likewise, the Third Circuit explained in Feder v. Evans-Feder (1995) that “the conduct and the overtly stated intentions and agreement of the parents . . . are bound to be important factors” in assessing a child’s habitual residence. With that standard in mind, the Third Circuit further held in Delvoye v. Lee (2003) that when the mother of an eight-week-old infant agreed to give birth in Belgium but to “live there only temporarily,” the infant “did not become a habitual resident” of Belgium before her mother took her to the United States.

The Fifth Circuit similarly held in Berezowsky v. Ojeda (2014), that, to establish a habitual residence, “[a] shared parental intent requires that the parents actually share or jointly develop the intention.” The court went on to explain that, “[i]n other words the parents must reach some sort of meeting of the minds regarding their child’s habitual residence, so that they are making the decision together.” The court concluded that the petitioner did not meet her burden of establishing that the parents “reach[ed] an agreement or meeting of the minds regarding [their child’s] future” and that the petitioner, therefore, was not entitled to an order returning the child to Mexico.

The Ninth Circuit follows the same approach. In Murphy v. Sloan (2014), the court declined to find a child habitually resident in Ireland because “there was never any discussion, let alone agreement, that the stay abroad would be indefinite.”

With Taglieri (2018), the Sixth Circuit took an entirely different approach to ascertain shared parental intent in this case. According to the en banc majority, a “meeting of the minds” between the parents is “not a necessary . . . basis for locating an infant’s habitual residence.” The court reasoned that this lack of subjective agreement “does not by itself end the inquiry.” Under that approach, the en banc majority upheld the return order—even though the district court made no finding that Monasky and Taglieri had ever agreed to raise their daughter in Italy.

LOOKING FORWARD

If any of the four other circuits to address the issue had decided Taglieri v.  Monasky, the absence of any actual agreement between Monasky and Taglieri—as well as the undisputed fact that the eight week-old had not acclimated to her surroundings in Italy—would have led the court to conclude that the daughter was not habitually resident in Italy and that a return order was not appropriate. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for this case on December 11, 2019, and we await its decision.

Is the Board of Immigration Appeals Entitled to Chevron Deference When Interpreting What Constitutes Child Abuse?

BACKGROUND

Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council established a framework for determining whether the decisions of administrative bodies are entitled to judicial deference. In very simplified terms, Chevron states that, when a statute is ambiguous, the decisions of administrative agencies should be granted judicial deference unless they are arbitrary or capricious. This determination is made in two steps. First, the court must determine whether the plain language of the statute in question is ambiguous. Second, if the language is determined to be ambiguous, the court must determine whether the administrative agency’s decision was arbitrary or capricious.

The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) is the “highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws,” and has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals of decisions rendered by immigration judges. In this capacity, the BIA often finds itself interpreting the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) during immigration proceedings.

In the Ninth Circuit case Martinez-Cedillo v. Sessions (2018), Marcelo Martinez-Cedillo was convicted of felony child endangerment under California Penal Code §273a(a). Mr. Martinez-Cedillo was ordered removed from the United States on the grounds that his conviction constituted “a crime of child abuse, child neglect, or child abandonment” under INA §237(a)(2)(E)(i). On appeal, the primary issue—and the source of the circuit split—was whether BIA’s interpretation of “child abuse, child neglect, or child abandonment,” as written in the INA, was entitled to Chevron deference.

THE NINTH CIRCUIT’S CHEVRON ANALYSIS

The Ninth Circuit held, in a 2-1 decision, that the BIA’s interpretation of “a crime of child abuse, child neglect, or child abandonment” was entitled to Chevron deference. Writing for the majority, Judge Bybee acknowledged that, regarding Chevron Step One, “every circuit court to have considered [the definition of “a crime of child abuse, child neglect, or child abandonment] noted its ambiguity,” and proceeded to Chevron Step Two without much discussion. Under Chevron Step Two, Judge Bybee determined that the BIA’s interpretation was “reasonable and entitled to deference.”

In dissent, Judge Wardlaw characterized the BIA’s interpretation as “unreasonable,” noting that the BIA’s definition had “inexplicably changed its generic definition three times in the past two decades.” Judge Wardlaw, quoting the Supreme Court in Sessions v. Dimaya (2018), further stated that the BIA’s “generic definition of the ‘crime of child abuse’ is so imprecise, it violates ‘essential’ tenets of due process, most specifically ‘the prohibition of vagueness in criminal statutes.’”

THE CIRCUIT SPLIT

Here, the Ninth Circuit joins the Second, Third, and Eleventh Circuits in holding that the BIA’s interpretation of “a crime of child abuse, child neglect, or child abandonment” should be granted judicial deference under Chevron. On the other hand, the Tenth Circuit held that the BIA’s interpretation should not be granted judicial deference.

In the Second Circuit case Florez v. Holder (2015), the BIA determined that Nilfor Yosel Florez’s action of driving while intoxicated with children in the back seat of his vehicle constituted “a crime of child abuse,” noting that the BIA’s interpretation of what constituted “a crime of child abuse” was “intentionally broad.” Of note in this case, Florez’s children were not harmed during the incident that led to his arrest and order of removal. The court determined that the BIA’s determination that actual injury to a child was not a required element of this definition was a reasonable one.

In the Third Circuit case Mondragon-Gonzales v. Attorney General of the United States (2018), Judge Vanaskie noted that the portion of the INA that listed general categories of crimes “was enacted…as part of an aggressive legislative movement to expand the criminal grounds of deportability … and to create a comprehensive statutory scheme to cover crimes against children in particular.” Similarly, in the Eleventh Circuit case Martinez v. United States Attorney General (2011), the court granted deference to the BIA’s determination that proof of actual harm or injury to the child by the petitioner was not required.

But the Tenth Circuit disagreed—in Ibarra v. Holder (2013), the court refused to grant deference to the BIA’s determination that a Colorado conviction for “child abuse—negligence—no injury” constituted a “crime of child abuse, child neglect, or child abandonment” under the INA. The court noted that the plain language of the statute applied only to crimes, but that not all states criminalize certain acts of child neglect, particularly in the absence of mens rea beyond criminal neglect or in the absence of proof of actual injury to the child. The court reasoned that in effect, the BIA’s interpretation of “a crime of child abuse” and its subsequent application would vary from one jurisdiction to another, depending on whether certain acts of child neglect were criminalized.

LOOKING FORWARD

With at least five circuits speaking to whether the BIA’s interpretation of “a crime of child abuse” should be granted judicial deference, the issue is ripe for review by the Supreme Court. However, these decisions point to a larger problem—the vagueness of some of the language in the INA combined with the latitude granted to the BIA, which often acts as the final voice on deportation decisions, to make broad interpretations of certain portions of the statute. It is especially important to note that these immigration decisions are not limited to undocumented immigrants—for example, Mr. Florez, the defendant in Florez, was a legal permanent resident at the time that his removal was ordered. In today’s climate, where deportation is all but actively encouraged, two additional steps besides eventual Supreme Court review would be particularly helpful: (1) clarification of the language of the statute by Congress, and (2) closer scrutiny by courts as to whether the BIA’s interpretations—not just limited to the BIA’s interpretation of child abuse—have become overly broad, especially in light of the administration’s anti-immigrant stance.

Splitting the Baby: Does the Child Have a Say?

Divorces can be hard enough on children without being abducted by one of their parents. Unfortunately, this problem occurred frequently enough for 98 countries to adopt an international law addressing this problem. The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction provides for a prompt return of children to their “habitual residence” in the event of being wrongly removed or retained in a foreign country by one of their parents. 22 U.S.C. § 9003(e). The Convention sets out to protect children in the context of custody battles by deterring parents from crossing international borders in an attempt to gain advantage in a more favorable jurisdiction.

The sole purpose of the Convention is to protect children who are uprooted from their homes in the wake of their parents’ split by returning them to their “habitual residence.”  Unfortunately, the Convention failed to define what constitutes a child’s “habitual residence,” which gave rise to competing interpretations of the term. The point of contention is whether the child’s perspective rules in determining where they must be returned or if greater weight should be given to the parents’ last shared intent regarding the child’s residence.

The Split

Courts of most contracting nations evaluate both of these factors – the child’s perspective as well as the parents’ shared decision prior to the break-up. However, courts in the U.S. disagree regarding which one of them is dispositive. In Cohen v. Cohen (8th Cir. 2017), after a mother and child moved to St. Louis from Israel, the relationship between the parents deteriorated. The father filed a request to have the child returned to Israel under the Convention. He asserted that the parents agreed that if the father will be unable to join his family in the United States, they will return to Israel. He “urge[d] the court to adopt the standard applied in the Second Circuit, among others, which gives dispositive weight to parental intent,” in reference to Gitter v. Gitter (2nd Cir. 2005).  In Gitter, the Second Circuit concluded that:

“…the first step in determining a child’s habitual residence is to inquire into the shared intent of those entitled to fix the child’s residence (usually the parents) at the latest time that their intent was shared.”

The Cohen court refused to adopt this standard, giving greater weight to the fact that the child has spent a significant portion of his life in the United States, where he has been going to school, socializing, and making other significant connections in the community.  The Eighth Circuit “declined to adopt this standard and decided that [they] determine habitual residence from the child’s perspective.” Although the court admits that the parents may have a more mature perspective on the situation, their primary goal is to ensure the child remains in their habitual environment.

The child-focused approach is in the minority, distinct from the “Mozes framework” proclaimed in the Ninth Circuit’s Mozes v. Mozes (2001). Here, the Ninth Circuit held that children “normally lack the material and psychological wherewithal to decide where they will reside,” so the dispositive weight is given to the last shared intent of “persons entitled to fix the place of child’s residence.” The Fourth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits, among others, adopted this perspective. However, the court in Redmond v. Redmond (7th Cir. 2013) attempted to reconcile the two approaches, emphasizing that “habitual residence” should be a “practical, flexible, factual inquiry, not a “fixed doctrinal test.” While it declared that it also subscribes to the Mozes framework, the Seventh Circuit Court declared that courts should consider both elements and determine which one deserves greater weight on a case-by-case basis.

Looking Forward

Since the Convention focuses on preventing children from needlessly suffering as a result of their parents’ actions, the Second Circuit’s decision to prioritize the child’s perspective seems like the just approach. However, the majority view, articulated by the Ninth Circuit, also have some traction, particularly in situations involving younger children. Although the courts have an interest in establishing a consistent interpretation, many commentators emphasize the importance of flexibility in determining the meaning of “habitual residence.” Depending on the child’s age and circumstances, a case-by-case approach will likely result in more equitable decisions than when applying a rigid, uniform principle. If the Supreme Court ever decides to address this question, it could likely establish a fairly flexible test, similar to the Redmond opinion, allowing the courts a lot of discretion in subsequent cases.