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Dorbor v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

March 29, 2019




         Plaintiff James Dennis Dorbor is a citizen of Liberia seeking to be naturalized as a United States citizen. His application for citizenship has been denied by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and he turns to this court for de novo review of that decision, as provided under 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c).

         The government contends that Dorbor was erroneously granted status as a legal permanent resident (LPR) in 2009, and because he did not qualify for LPR status then, he does not qualify for citizenship now. The parties agree that Dorbor qualified when he applied for LPR status because his wife had asylum status. The question is whether he still qualified after he and his wife divorced, which was after he applied but before his application was granted. Both sides move for summary judgment. Dkt. 17 and Dkt. 20.

         The facts of this case are undisputed, and the decisive issue is the interpretation of 8 U.S.C. § 1159(b)(3), which states that an asylee may not adjust to the LPR status unless the applicant “continues to be a refugee . . . or a spouse or child of such a refugee.” § 1159(b)(3). The question is whether the word “continues” refers to the time the application was filed or to the time the agency decided the application. In isolation, § 1159(b)(3) is ambiguous; both Dorbor and the government propose reasonable interpretations of the statue. But the text, purpose, and history of the statute as a whole, as well as related immigration statutes and case law, support Dorbor's view. The court will grant Dobor's motion for summary judgment and deny defendants' motion. This makes it unnecessary to consider Dorbor's alternative argument that he is entitled to relief because the USCIS failed to adjudicate his application in a reasonable time.


         The following facts are undisputed.

         Dorbor is a citizen of Liberia. He married Garmai Stubblefield in Liberia in 1987. In 2001, Stubblefield entered the United States and successfully applied for political asylum. Stubblefield applied to have Dorbor and their three children admitted to the United States as derivative asylees. Dorbor was admitted to the United States as a derivative asylee in 2004.

         Dorbor applied, pro se, for an adjustment to LPR status on May 5, 2006. Dkt. 23-3. Dorbor's relationship with his wife had deteriorated, and apparently Dorbor and Stubblefield did not live together in the United States. In his application for adjustment, Dorbor listed his marital status as “divorced.” Id. at 4. But Dorbor did not formally divorce Stubblefield until October 29, 2007, through a petition to the Liberian government.

         Dorbor was interviewed in connection with his application for adjustment to LPR status on February 9, 2009. He explained his marital situation to the USCIS agent. Notes on the application suggest that Dorbor had clarified during his interview that he was “separated” at the time of his application. Dorbor was granted LPR status on February 13, 2009, nearly three years after he filed his application. Dorbor remarried in November 2009.

         Dorbor applied for naturalization, with legal representation, on January 14, 2014. He was interviewed by a USCIS agent on October 15, 2014. Dorbor's application was denied in a written decision dated March 2, 2016. Dkt. 23-5. The bases for the 2016 denial were that Dorbor was divorced at the time of his application for adjustment to LPR status, and that his marriage to Stubblefield was not bona fide. Dorbor requested reconsideration and a hearing. Dkt. 23-6. After two further hearings, the USCIS reaffirmed the denial in a decision dated May 8, 2017. The sole basis for the ultimate decision in 2017 was:

In your case, according to your testimony and your documentary evidence, the petition ceased to be valid because you divorced your petitioning spouse before your adjusted status.

Dkt. 23-7.[1]

         Dorbor's petition to this court followed.


         Under 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c), Dorbor is entitled de novo review in district court of the denial of his application for naturalization. The question is whether Dorbor has met his burden to show that he meets the statutory requirements for naturalization. Berenyi v. Immigration & Naturalization Serv., 385 U.S. 630, 636-37 (1967). The district court has no equitable authority to naturalize applicants who are ineligible under the law. Immigration & Naturalization Serv. v. Pangilinan, 486 U.S. 875, 885 (1988). Dorbor requests an ...

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