Understanding Immigration Statutes and Regulations: The “Reasonable Result” Doctrine

An important rule of statutory (and regulatory) interpretation instructs that, when one of several possible interpretations of an ambiguous statute produces an unreasonable result, the adjudicator should reject that interpretation in favor of one that produces a reasonable result.

Adjudicatory bodies express the idea of a “reasonable” result in many different ways. An adjudicatory body, for example, might conclude that the interpretation of an ambiguous statute must avoid an “absurd,” “unjust,” “unequitable,” “confusing,” “unworkable,” “illogical,” “inconvenient,” or “odd” result. Nonetheless, adjudicatory bodies continue to understand all these idioms in terms of the “reasonable” result doctrine.

The “reasonableness” standard is a useful tool for more than just resolving the meaning of ambiguous language. Adjudicatory bodies sometimes use a variant of the “reasonableness” rule absent ambiguity, when a statute’s (or regulation’s) clear meaning produces an unintended, absurd result.

In this light, adjudicatory bodies find it appropriate to depart from a literal construction that would produce an “absurd,” “unworkable,” “unjust,” “or unlikely” result that is clearly inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the statute in question.

For example, in Youssefi v. Renaud, 794 F. Supp. 2d 585 (D. Md. 2011), the court used the reasonableness doctrine when there was no ambiguity in the relevant rule (a regulation, in this case). Instead, the court used the reasonableness doctrine to read into a regulation an exception that was not there.

In that case, USCIS argued that a noncitizen was not eligible for an exception to the rule that a noncitizen may not receive a change of status if he falls out of status. The regulation clearly provided that nonimmigrants who are out of status when they apply for a change of status are eligible to receive an exception for late-filing. But, there was no regulation that explicitly provided that nonimmigrants who apply for a change or an extension of status when they are in status and then later fall out of status before the change of status is granted are eligible to receive a change of status pursuant to the just-mentioned exception.

The court explained:

Section 248.1(b) states that “a change of status may not be approved for an alien who failed to maintain the previously accorded status or whose status expired before the application or petition was filed, except that failure to file before the period of previously authorized status expired may be excused in the discretion of the Service ….” 8 C.F.R. § 248.1(b). Under the plain language of the regulation, an applicant may be eligible for a change of status even if she failed to file before her previously authorized status expired. The ultimate decision of whether to excuse the applicant’s lapse lies within “the discretion” of the USCIS. Id.

Plaintiff’s situation—filing her application while her B–2 status was still valid, yet subsequently allowing it to expire while her application was being considered by the agency—is not specifically addressed by the language of the regulation. However, her lapse is necessarily less serious and more excusable than the lapse that the regulation expressly excuses. If the failure to file before expiration of status can be excused within the discretion of the service, then, a fortiori, it is only logical that filing within status (and later falling out of status) must be excusable. The Court cannot conceive how any reasonable regulator would intend to provide a mechanism for excusing the former, yet not the latter. The USCIS’s interpretation would therefore result in an absurd and inexplicable inconsistency within the statute, and such interpretations are disfavored.

Id. Thus, the court interpreted the regulation, 8 C.F.R. § 248.1(b), as providing an avenue for nonimmigrants who apply while in status, the nonimmigrants “not specifically addressed by the language of the regulation.” Id. The court explained, “the Court concludes that section 248.1 gives the USCIS discretion to excuse change-of-status applicants who share Plaintiff’s situation: applicants whose prior status remained valid at the time of filing, but later expired.” Id.