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Sagoe v. Sessions

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 5, 2018

Pauline Sagoe Petitioner
Jefferson B. Sessions, III, Attorney General of the United States Respondent

          Submitted: October 18, 2017

          Petition for Review of an Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals

          Before LOKEN, MURPHY, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.

          LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

         Pauline Sagoe, a native and citizen of Ghana, entered the United States in May 2000 as the nonimmigrant fiancée of United States citizen Samuel Lassor. Sagoe and Lassor married in July 2000, and she was granted lawful permanent resident status on a conditional basis. In December 2002, Sagoe and Lassor petitioned to remove the conditions. In September 2007, after extensive investigation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) denied the petition and terminated Sagoe's permanent resident status, finding that she failed to establish that the marriage was bona fide and not entered into primarily to secure an immigration benefit. See 8 U.S.C. § 1186a(c)(3)(C). DHS then commenced removal proceedings. After an evidentiary hearing, the immigration judge (IJ) upheld the termination of permanent resident status and ordered Sagoe removed. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) affirmed. Sagoe petitions for review of the BIA's final order of removal. We conclude that substantial evidence supports the agency's decision and therefore deny the petition for review. See Abuya v. Sessions, 873 F.3d 650, 652 (8th Cir. 2017) (standard of review).

         I. The Statutory Framework.

         An alien who marries a U.S. citizen may be granted permanent resident status on a conditional basis. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1151(b)(2)(A)(i), 1154(a)(1)(A)(i), 1186a(a)(1). To remove the conditions, the alien and U.S.-citizen spouse must timely file a joint Form I-751 Petition to Remove the Conditions on Residence. In support, the couple must submit facts and information showing that "the qualifying marriage . . . was not entered into for the purpose of procuring an alien's admission as an immigrant, " 8 U.S.C. §§ 1186a(c)(1)(A), (d)(1)(A)(i)(III), and must appear for an interview before a DHS officer, § 1186a(c)(1)(B). "If the Secretary of Homeland Security determines that such facts and information are not true, the Secretary . . . shall terminate the permanent resident status of an alien spouse." § 1186a(c)(3)(C). An alien whose permanent resident status is terminated is deportable. § 1227(a)(1)(D)(i). If the alien spouse seeks review of the Secretary's determination in removal proceedings, DHS must establish, "by a preponderance of the evidence, that the facts and information described in subsection [§ 1186a(d)(1)] and alleged in the [I-751] petition are not true with respect to the qualifying marriage." § 1186a(c)(3)(D).

         To prove that a marriage was entered into to "procur[e] an alien's admission as an immigrant, " DHS must establish the couple did not intend "to establish a life together at the time they were married." Abuya, 873 F.3d at 652 (quotation omitted). "Though the couple's intent at the outset of the marriage is the relevant question, when assessing the couple's intent, courts look to both the period before and after the marriage." Id. at 653 (quotation omitted). Evidence of intent can take many forms, including listing one's spouse "on insurance policies, property leases, income tax forms, or bank accounts . . . [and] other evidence regarding courtship, wedding ceremony, shared residence and experiences." Matter of Laureano, 19 I. & N. Dec. 1, *3 (BIA 1983). Whether Sagoe's marriage to Lassor was a sham is a question of fact. Abuya, 873 F.3d at 652. "[A]dministrative findings of fact are conclusive unless any reasonable adjudicator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary." 8 U.S.C. § 1252(b)(4)(B); see Hassen v. Mukasey, 534 F.3d 927, 929 (8th Cir. 2008).

         II. Factual and Procedural Background.

         A. The Initial Agency Decision.

         Sagoe entered the United States on May 13, 2000, arriving in New York on a K-1 fiancée visa and staying in New Jersey four days with Theodore Kudayah, whom she described as a family friend, before joining Lassor in Minnesota. Sagoe and Lassor married in a courthouse in Stillwater, Minnesota on July 14, 2000; no family or friends attended. In December 2002, Sagoe and Lassor filed an I-751 petition to have Sagoe's conditional status removed. The couple separated in February 2003. In November 2003, DHS's predecessor agency issued an I-751 Notice of Intent stating that the evidence submitted with their petition "is not sufficient to warrant favorable consideration" and requesting additional documents "showing joint ownership of assets and joint responsibility for liabilities." Lassor died in December 2003 with the I-751 petition pending.

         After Lassor's death, Margaret Abraham, Lassor's sister who also lived in Minnesota, made the funeral arrangements and was appointed personal representative of Lassor's estate. In early 2004, Sagoe claimed to be Lassor's surviving spouse, and Abraham contacted immigration authorities, alleging that Sagoe and Lassor's marriage was a sham and forwarding a copy of Lassor's death certificate issued in December 2003 that listed him as "never married." In June 2004, Sagoe appeared for an I-751 petition interview with DHS Adjudications Officer Jennifer Skwira. Sagoe submitted an amended death certificate issued in March 2004 that listed Lassor as married to Pauline Sagoe. Skwira testified that she believed this discrepancy warranted additional questioning and then undertook a comprehensive investigation into Sagoe and Lassor's marriage. In September 2007, the Field Office Director issued a letter advising Sagoe that the I-751 petition was denied. The lengthy letter summarized the results of the agency's investigation:

         -The record included a letter to immigration authorities that Lassor drafted a month before marrying Sagoe, but never sent, stating that "I wish to withdraw my affidavit of support" for Sagoe because she had experienced a "change of heart, " rejected his requests to move in with him, and concluded that marrying him was "out of the question" because of "irreconcilable differences."

         -Officer Skwira spoke on the phone with Edward Opong, a childhood friend of Lassor identified by Abraham. Opong stated that when he visited Lassor in 2000 he learned Sagoe had refused to marry Lassor. Sagoe paid Lassor $7, 000 to file immigration papers that would enable her to obtain a green card, then wanted nothing more to do with Lassor. She complained to Opong that Lassor demanded more money to follow through with the arrangement. Opong also described the couple's problem-ridden and argumentative relationship, describing a heated argument about the ...

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