Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Ruiz-Diaz V. United States: RFRA, Substantial Burden, and the Ninth Circuit's Causation-Nexus Requirement - a Wrinkle or a Roadblock for Future Immigration-Related Religious Freedom Challenges?

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Ruiz-Diaz V. United States: RFRA, Substantial Burden, and the Ninth Circuit's Causation-Nexus Requirement - a Wrinkle or a Roadblock for Future Immigration-Related Religious Freedom Challenges?

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

In Ruiz-Diaz v. United States, (1) the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals turned back a direct Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA") challenge to a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services' ("USCIS") regulation that makes it more difficult for non-citizen religious workers to obtain permanent resident status than other workers who apply to immigrate to the United States. (2) The USCIS regulation determines when a religious worker can apply for permanent resident status--it requires religious employers to undergo a two-step process involving pre-approval of a visa petition before allowing the beneficiary of the petition to apply for a "green card." (3) Secular workers, by contrast, can concurrently file the visa petition and application for the green card, and thus complete their immigration process in one step without having to leave the United States at all. (4) Coupled with administrative processing delays, this ensures that at least some religious workers who come to the United States on temporary visas will need to depart the United States and abandon their religious work here, temporarily or possibly permanently. (5)

The Court rejected the plaintiffs' challenge that this scheme burdened their religious exercise. (6) It found that the statute imposes no duty on USCIS to decide religious worker visa petitions within any particular timeframe, and concluded that USCIS's process did not impose a "substantial burden" on religious works within the Ninth Circuit's definition of the term--specifically, it did not force the religious workers to choose between exercising their religion and obtaining a government benefit, nor did it compel the complainants to abandon their religious exercise as a way to avoid having a civil or criminal penalty imposed on them." (7) The Court further found that the burden of possibly having to leave the U.S. was not due to the plaintiffs' religious exercise, but due to the fact that they would have violated the terms of their temporary status in the U.S. had they stayed. (8)

As of the date of this publication, Ruiz-Diaz has only been cited once by another federal court since its publication in November 2012." (9) But its implications loom large--recently the USCIS's California Service Center relied on Ruiz-Diaz to deny a request for a religious exemption to a minister who applied for permanent resident status, but who was found to be inadmissible under the Immigration and Nationality Act due to past conduct unrelated to his ministry. (10) It reasoned that the minister's inadmissibility as an immigrant was not caused by his religious exercise, and therefore the denial of his lawful status did not impose a substantial burden on religion. (11) The USCIS found the minister's plight to be analogous to that of the plaintiffs in Ruiz-Diaz and denied his request for an exemption under RFRA. (12)

This article examines the Ruiz-Diaz decision and its effect on the question of whether and when the refusal of immigration benefits, specifically to religious workers who are prima facie eligible as immigrants under the Immigration and Nationality Act ("INA"), violates RFRA or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment if religious-based exceptions are not made available, even though the INA contains individualized exceptions for secular reasons. It also questions the continued jurisprudential viability of the Navajo Nation case, relied on by the Ninth Circuit as the principal authority to determine when there is a substantial burden on religion. It argues that subsequent Supreme Court decisions point to a broader Congressional intent to protect religion than the Ninth Circuit recognized in Navajo Nation, and that the Ninth Circuit could have come to the same result on narrower grounds. Finally, this article suggests substituting a different "but for" test that would apply to challenges to administrative actions that should trigger strict scrutiny when a statute, regulation, or agency action will result in the separation from religious employment of a non-U. …

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