Abdo Luftu Ali v. U.S. Department of State: U.S. Passport Revocation After Almost 30 Years

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Excerpt from Abdo Luftu Ali v. U.S. Department of State/Memorandum of Opinion March 17, 2021:

Plaintiff Abdo Ali (“plaintiff’ or “Ali’”) brings this action under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) against the U.S. Department of State (“State Department” or “defendant”), seeking an order setting aside defendant’s revocation of Ali’s U.S. passport.
[…]
Ali currently resides in Oxford, Mississippi, but he was born in Yemen in 1979. At the time, Ali’s father was a U.S. citizen, having naturalized approximately ten and a half years earlier in January 1969. Compl. 4 8. In 1990, Ali was first issued a U.S. passport under Section 301(g) of the INA on the grounds that he was a child of a U.S. citizen, who, prior to Ali’s birth, had been present in the U.S. for at least ten years, including at least five while he was older than fourteen. Jd. 410. Ali entered the United States in 1994 and was issued passport renewals in 1999 and 2009. Id. § 13. Because passports “may be issued only to a U.S. national,” 22 C.F.R. § 51.2(a), the initial issuance of Ali’s passport and the subsequent renewals necessarily constituted findings that Ali was a U.S. national. See Compl. ff 14, 19. On January 8, 2019, however, the State Department revoked Ali’s passport on the ground that he was not a U.S. national. Id. ¥ 15; see also 22 C.F.R. § 51.62(b) (“The Department may revoke a passport when the Department has determined that the bearer of the passport is not a U.S. national.”). In a letter to Ali, the State Department explained its decision by noting that sometime after the 2009 renewal, “[a]n investigation .. . revealed that [Ali’s] father was not physically present in the United States for ten years before [Ali’s] birth,” as was then required by Section 301(g) of the INA. See Ex. A to Pl.’s Opp. to Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss (“PI.’s Opp.’””) [Dkt. #9-1] at 1.! The letter cited documentation supporting its position but lacked any explanation as to why the State Department had initially issued Ali a passport and subsequently renewed it twice. Jd.; Compl. 418.

On May 30, 2020, Ali filed this suit under the APA, 5 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., seeking to set aside the revocation decision. See Compl. at 8. The complaint alleges that, “to the best of his knowledge,” Ali is a citizen and national of the United States, id. { 3, and that the State Department’s decision to revoke his passport was “arbitrary . . . as well as not being in accordance with law.” Id. § 1. In the alternative, the complaint states that “even if [Ali] is not a national of the United States,” the revocation should still be set aside because the State Department “is estopped by laches and equitable estoppel from revoking [] Ali’s passport.” Jd. § 2.
[…]
In an attempt to avoid the preclusive effect of § 1503(a), Ali argues in the alternative that he is permitted to proceed with this suit under the APA regardless of whether he is, in fact, a U.S. national. See Pl.’s Opp. at 3 (invoking this Court’s equitable powers under the doctrines of laches and estoppel). Under this theory, plaintiff would have the Court set aside defendant’s revocation of Ali’s passport even though he fails to allege that he meets the necessary precondition for a U.S. passport—being a U.S. national, 22 C.F.R. § 51.2(a). See Pl.’s Mot. at 4—5 n.2 (stating that Ali does not “claim unequivocally” that he is a U.S. national, but “maintains that .. . even if he is not a U.S. national, the [State] Department should be estopped from denying it”). Unfortunately for plaintiff, this I cannot do.

The power to issue passports rests solely in the Secretary of State or a designee. 22 U.S.C. § 211a (providing that the Secretary possesses the authority to “grant and issue passports .. . and no other person shall grant, issue, or verify such passports”). Passports may only be issued to U.S. nationals, see 22 C.F.R. § 51.2(a), and the State Department may revoke those passports when it determines that the bearer of the passport is not a U.S. national. 22 C.F.R. § 51.62(b); see also 22 U.S.C. § 212 (“No passport shall be granted or issued to or verified for any other persons than those owing allegiance, whether citizens or not, to the United States.”’).

The Court’s power to craft equitable remedies, while broad, does not permit it to interfere with this statutory and regulatory scheme. See INS v. Pangilinan, 486 U.S. 875, 883-84 (1988) (holding courts’ equitable authority does not extend to crafting remedies contrary to Congressional statutes). Especially in the immigration context, the Court may not rely on the doctrine of laches or the doctrine of equitable estoppel to override public policy as established by Congress. See id. at 885 (“Neither by application of the doctrine of estoppel, nor by invocation of equitable powers, nor by any other means does a court have the power to confer citizenship in violation of [statutory limitations].”).

Congress has established that only U.S. nationals may receive a passport. See 22 U.S.C. § 212. It has also provided, through 8 U.S.C. § 1503(a), a mechanism to challenge agency determinations that an individual is not a U.S. national. But where a _ plaintiff refuses to pursue this avenue of relief, courts may not grant through alternative equitable means what is effectively the same result—a determination that the State Department must treat plaintiff as if he is a U.S. national. See Pangilinan, 486 U.S. at 883-84.

Accordingly, no matter how plaintiff frames his complaint, it fails to state a claim under the APA.
[…] the Court GRANTS defendant’s motion to dismiss and DISMISSES the action in its entirety.

In footnote 7, the Court talks about what must be “exceedingly frustrating”:

The Court appreciates that the State Department’s conduct in recognizing Ali as a U.S. national for almost thirty years, only to reverse that determination with minimal explanation, must be exceedingly frustrating. But plaintiffs recourse nonetheless lies under Section 360(a) of the INA, not the APA. See Hassan, 793 F. Supp. 2d at 443 (noting that although multiple inconsistent decisions from the government over a span of many years created an understandable frustration, no action was cognizable under the APA with respect to the revocation of plaintiff’s passport).

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