Why “Presumption of Knowledge” Should Change the Way You Think of Signing Immigration Forms

A married Venezuelan couple–we’ll call them Jacobo and Lucía–gained admission into to the US in March 1993, as non-immigrant visitors. They could remain in the US till September 1993. In December 1997, St. Mark Catholic Church filed a visa petition that sought to classify Jacobo as a special immigrant religious worker. Along with the petition, the church filed supporting documents showing Jacobo was a minister there. Under US immigration law, special immigrant religious workers can become permanent residents. In January 2000, Pastor Jacobo and Lucía became permanent residents.

However, there was a small problem. Well, a big and small problem. Small, because it would not be discovered for eleven years. Big, because it would have life-altering consequences.

Eleven years later, in 2011, when Pastor Jacobo and Lucía, returned from a trip abroad, the pastor was sent by customs officers to undergo some additional inspections. Customs officers, questioning  Pastor Jacobo, uncovered that the pastor was not a pastor—and had never been one, at least not at the church that petitioned for him in 1997.

Could Jacobo sense he was in trouble, considering that he had signed, when applying for permanent residence, immigration paperwork stating that he had worked at St. Mark as a minister for several years? Not necessarily. More on this later.

The Department of Homeland Security started deportation proceedings for Jacobo and Lucía, alleging that they used fraud or a willful misrepresentation to receive their permanent residence.

In immigration court, Jacobo claimed that until he was in front of the customs officers at the airport, he did not know his permanent residence application falsely claimed that he worked as a minister.

When Jacobo entered the US in ’93, someone referred him to a person–we’ll call him Falstaff–whom Jacobo believed could represent him in his effort to get permanent residence. Jacobo thought Falstaff was an attorney and a pastor. Falstaff told Jacobo that for $15,000 Falstaff could help him become a permanent resident “through the church.” Jacobo said that Falstaff and his staff prepared his application for permanent residence and the accompanying supporting documents.

Jacobo admitted he signed the permanent residence application, and Lucía admitted she signed her derivative application. But the documents were in English. They could not read English and were unaware of the documents’ contents, they said.

The judge at the immigration court, hearing all this, decided that Jacobo and Lucía were not to be trusted. The judge determined that, under the circumstances, it was implausible that the Jacobo and Lucía were unaware of the inaccuracies in the documents they signed.

Jacobo and Lucía appealed the judge’s decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).

One BIA member agreed, explaining that courts have taken the position, in various contexts, including immigration cases, that one’s signature on a form or contract establishes a strong presumption that the signer knows its contents and has assented to them, absent evidence of fraud or other wrongful acts by another person.

One BIA member wrote that the facts of Jacobo and Lucía’s case–at least–indicate that Jacobo and Lucía made a conscious choice to avoid knowing about the misrepresentations their applications contained.

This BIA member noted that neither Jacobo and Lucía claimed to have been misled or deceived by the representative or his staff.

The Board concluded that the immigration judge, whose decision Jacobo and Lucía appealed, properly applied the presumption of knowledge and made a sensible leap to conclude that Jacobo and Lucía knew of or authorized the false statements that Falstaff  made on their behalf.

As things stand, it appears that Jacobo and Lucía will have to leave the US, a country they have called home for nearly thirty years, and return to Venezuela, a beautiful country going through historically difficult times.

The takeaway from Jacobo and Lucía’s December 2018 BIA case should be the following: (1) a foreign national makes a willful misrepresentation when he or she knows of or authorizes false statements in an application filed on his or her behalf, and (2) a foreign national’s signature on an immigration application establishes a strong presumption he or she knows of and has assented to the contents of the application, but the foreign national can rebut the presumption by establishing fraud, deceit, or other wrongful acts by another person.