331 F.3d 369 (3rd Cir. 2003) (3rd Cir. 2003), 01-3900, Ponce-Leiva v. Ashcroft

Docket Nº:01-3900
Citation:331 F.3d 369
Party Name:Ponce-Leiva v. Ashcroft
Case Date:June 05, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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331 F.3d 369 (3rd Cir. 2003)

Julio Donaldo PONCE-LEIVA, Petitioner

v.

John D. ASHCROFT, Attorney General of the United States, Respondent.

No. 01-3900.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

June 5, 2003

Argued Sept. 13, 2002.

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Steven A. Morley (Argued), Bagia & Morley, Philadelphia, for Petitioner.

Robert D. McCallum, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Ernesto H. Molina, Senior Litigation Counsel, Regina Byrd (Argued), Attorney, Michael P. Lindemann, Attorney, Lyle D. Jentzer, Attorney, Office of Immigration Litigation, Civil Division, United State Justice Department, Washington, for Respondent.

Before SLOVITER, RENDELL, Circuit Judges and McCLURE, [*] District Judge.

OPINION

McCLURE, District Judge.

This is a petition for review of a final order of removal issued by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The BIA affirmed the immigration judge's decision that Julio Donaldo Ponce-Leiva was removable and ineligible for asylum. Ponce-Leiva presents us with two questions. First, did the immigration judge's decision to hold an asylum hearing after Ponce-Leiva's attorney suddenly refused to appear constitute a denial of Ponce-Leiva's right to counsel? Second, did the immigration attorney's failure to appear at the hearing or make a timely request for a continuance constitute ineffective assistance of counsel?

We have jurisdiction to review the BIA's final order. See 8 U.S.C. § 1252(b)(2). We will deny Ponce-Leiva's petition for review.

I.

On April 17, 1997, Ponce-Leiva, a native and citizen of Guatemala, received personal service of a Notice to Appear. The Notice to Appear stated that because Ponce-Leiva had, six years earlier, entered the United States without being inspected or admitted by an immigration officer, he was in violation of § 212(a)(6)(A)(i) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA). It informed Ponce-Leiva that a hearing was scheduled for September 9, 1997. Administrative Record (A.R.) at 119-20.

At the September 9, 1997 hearing, Ponce-Leiva appeared without counsel. The immigration judge informed him of his right to counsel and continued the hearing until November 4, 1997, giving Ponce-Leiva an opportunity to obtain representation.

On November 4, 1997, Ponce-Leiva appeared at the hearing, and this time he was accompanied by counsel. Through counsel, Ponce-Leiva admitted removability and stated that he would pursue asylum. The immigration judge scheduled the merits hearing for July 1, 1998.

On June 29, 1998, two days before the merits hearing, the immigration court received a letter from counsel dated June 25, 1998 requesting a continuance. According to the letter, Counsel would be unavailable for the merits hearing because he planned to be in San Diego. In the letter, counsel offered alternative dates for the hearing. Id. at 109.

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On the same day, June 29, 1998, the immigration judge denied counsel's continuance request. The order gave the judge's reason, stating that "you accepted this date on November 4, 1997." Id. at 110.

On July 1, 1998, the merits hearing was held as scheduled. Ponce-Leiva's asylum application raised two grounds for asylum: (1) he needed a job in order to support his family; and (2) if he returned to Guatemala, he would be homeless because his family could not support him. Id. at 104. After explaining that he would proceed with the hearing, the immigration judge questioned Ponce-Leiva on his bases for asylum.

Through a written order and an oral decision, the immigration judge announced his decisions to deny the request for continuance and to deny Ponce-Leiva's application for asylum. Id. at 36-39.

The immigration judge elaborated upon his reason for denying the continuance request. He stated that continuing the hearing was not in Ponce-Leiva's best interest. He noted that while counsel has been collecting fees from Ponce-Leiva, he failed to provide Ponce-Leiva with advice on how to stay in the country. The immigration judge stated that although counsel agreed eight months earlier to appear at the hearing, he abandoned Ponce-Leiva at the last minute. The judge concluded that without any evidence that counsel was a benefit to Ponce-Leiva, Ponce-Leiva was better off if the judge went forward with the hearing. Next, the judge gave more reasons for denying the continuance request: (1) the taxpayers paid for the court time set aside for Ponce-Leiva's case; (2) the expectations of the INS would be upset if cases such as Ponce-Leiva's could not be orderly processed; (3) the ability of the immigration court to manage its docket would be impeded if attorneys could shirk their responsibilities in such a manner; and (4) according to Matter of Santos, 19 I & N Dec. 105, 1984 WL 48592 (BIA 1984), the absence of counsel is not necessarily prejudicial error.

The immigration judge then commented on his reasons for denying Ponce-Leiva's application for asylum:

The respondent freely acknowledged that he is an economic migrant and not a "refugee." He stated this in his asylum application. When the Court interrogated him to see if there was any other aspect of his case, it found none. Again, the respondent honestly stated that he came to the United States in order to support himself and his family. The facts show clearly that the respondent was never persecuted in the past, or that he faces a reasonable possibility thereof on account of any factor protected by the [INA].

A.R. at 39. The immigration judge granted voluntary departure.

Ponce-Leiva appealed to the BIA. In his notice of appeal, Ponce-Leiva claimed that in denying the request for continuance, the immigration judge abused his discretion. Id. at 26. In his brief to the BIA, Ponce-Leiva argued that (1) the absence of counsel violated his right to counsel and his due process rights; and (2) counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel, which violated his due process rights. Id. at 9-12. The brief contained no explicit reference to the immigration judge's decision to deny the continuance request.

On September 24, 2001, the BIA affirmed the immigration judge's decision and dismissed the appeal.

As for the due process claim relating to the absence of counsel, the BIA stated the following:

(1) Because Ponce-Leiva could not show that he was prejudiced by the absence of

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counsel, there was no due process violation;

(2) "[I]n any event, we have determined that the absence of counsel at his hearing does not alter our conclusion that the decision of the Immigration Judge is correct." The government states that the "decision" referred to in this sentence is the decision to deny counsel's continuance request. Government's Brief at 11.

(3) "We find no procedural or legal errors indicating that [Ponce-Leiva] was either deprived of a full and fair hearing or denied the opportunity to apply for all available forms of relief from removal." Id. at 3.

As for ineffective assistance, the BIA rejected that claim, explaining that Ponce-Leiva could neither show that his proceedings were fundamentally unfair nor show that he was prejudiced by counsel's performance. Id.

II.

Before we may decide whether Ponce-Leiva's rights were violated, we first must determine whether the claims are properly before the court. The government dedicates much of its brief to arguing that Ponce-Leiva waived the claims he raises before us.

In his brief to this court, Ponce-Leiva raises the following claims: (1) the denial of the continuance request and the subsequent holding of the hearing was a denial of his right to counsel, and (2) counsel's performance constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. According to the government, both claims are barred.

The government contends that Ponce-Leiva is barred from raising with this court a claim that is based on the denial of the continuance request. It advances two arguments. First, it asserts that in determining whether Ponce-Leiva's due process rights were violated, the BIA did not consider the immigration judge's denial of the continuance request. Rather, according to the government, the BIA referred to the denial of the continuance request only in the context of whether the immigration judge abused his discretion in denying the request. The government contends that, therefore, Ponce-Leiva's current link between the continuance request and due process was not found in the BIA's final order (which is the order appealed from) and thus not properly before this court. Second, the government states that Ponce-Leiva failed in his appeal to the BIA to equate the denial of the continuance request with the denial of his due process rights. It argues that accordingly, Ponce-Leiva failed to exhaust this claim, which as a result is now barred from judicial review.

As for the claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, the government argues that because it is raised here in a different fashion than the way it was raised before the BIA, we may not review it. The government points to the fact that while the ineffective-assistance claim before the BIA related to whether the immigration judge denied Ponce-Leiva his due process rights, the ineffective-assistance claim before this court related to whether Ponce-Leiva complied with the procedural requirements announced in Matter of Lozada, 19 I. & N. Dec. 637, 1988 WL 235454 (BIA 1988). Therefore, the government argues, the BIA did not consider the instant ineffectiveness claim, and the claim is thus exhausted.

We reject the government's arguments, and we find that each of Ponce-Leiva's claims is properly before this court.

First, the due process claim is inextricably linked with the immigration...

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