In Hernandez v Pena, --- F.3d ---, 2016 WL 1719955 (5th Cir.,2016) six-year-old D.A.P.G. was abducted from his home in Honduras and brought illegally into the United States by his mother Reina Leticia Garcia Peña. Hernandez, filed his return petition two months outside of the one-year period in Article 12 of the Convention, allowing the district court to consider the Convention’s defense that the child is well-settled in his new environment and therefore should not be returned. The district court denied Hernandez’s petition, concluding that D.A.P.G. was well-settled in his current community The Fifth Circuit concluded that the district court erred in its application of this defense. It vacated the district court’s order and granted the petition.
Pranklin Pleites Hernandez and Reina Leticia Garcia Peña, both Honduran citizens, were the parents of D.A.P.G, who was born in Honduras on September 17, 2009, and grew up in the town of San Antonio, Copán. In 2012, Hernandez and Garcia Peña married, but their relationship deteriorated in the following years and they eventually stopped living together. Without Hernandez’s knowledge, Garcia Peña left San Antonio, Copán, with D.A.P.G. on May 20, 2014, and hired individuals to smuggle herself and D.A.P.G. into the United States. In New Orleans, Garcia Peña and D.A.P.G. lived with Garcia Peña’s boyfriend, also a Honduran citizen, and D.A.P.G.’s four-month-old half-sister, who was born in May 2015. D.A.P.G. is in kindergarten, and Garcia Peña works in the housekeeping department of a hotel. Garcia Peña and D.A.P.G. also attend church regularly. Aside from these connections, however, D.A.P.G. had no family in New Orleans, and both Garcia Peña and D.A.P.G. were involved in active removal proceedings before the New Orleans Immigration Court. After locating D.A.P.G., Hernandez filed a petition under the Convention in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on August 4, 2015, asserting that Garcia Peña wrongfully removed D.A.P.G. from Honduras and seeking D.A.P.G.’s prompt return.
The district court concluded that the testimony at trial established by a preponderance of the evidence that D.A.P.G. was well-settled in the United States and denied Hernandez’s return petition. It concluded that D.A.P.G.’s immigration status did not outweigh his “age, stability of new residence, school attendance, friendships in the new area, participation in the community and respondent’s employment and financial stability.” The district court categorized Garcia Peña’s and D.A.P.G.’s immigration status as generally “questionable,” instead of focusing more concretely on their involvement in active removal proceedings.
The Court observed that the underlying purpose of the “now settled” defense is to recognize that at some point a child may become so settled in a new environment that return is no longer in the child’s best interests. Lozano v. Alvarez, 697 F.3d 41, 53 (2d Cir.2012), aff’d sub nom. Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez, ––– U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 1224, 188 L.Ed.2d 200 (2014). The Court joined the circuits that addressed the issue and held that the following factors should be considered: (1) the child’s age; (2) the stability and duration of the child’s residence in the new environment; (3) whether the child attends school or day care consistently; (4) whether the child has friends and relatives in the new area; (5) the child’s participation in community or extracurricular activities; (6) the respondent’s employment and financial stability; and (7) the immigration status of the respondent and child. It observed that Courts diverge, however, with regard to the significance of immigration status, which forms the crux of the parties’ arguments here. The Court observed that in Lozano, the Second Circuit concluded that “immigration status should only be one of many factors courts take into account .... [and] that, in any given case, the weight to be ascribed to a child’s immigration status will necessarily vary.” 697 F.3d at 56. The Second Circuit also explained that the proper inquiry is not abstract but fact-specific, and is broader than just the threat of deportation. For example, the importance of immigration status “will inevitably vary for innumerable reasons, including: the likelihood that the child will be able to acquire legal status or otherwise remain in the United States, the child’s age, and the extent to which the child will be harmed by her inability to receive certain government benefits.” Id. at 57. The Ninth Circuit also declined to announce a categorical rule for the weight to be given to immigration status. See In re B. Del C.S.B., 559 F.3d at 1010, 1009–10. Unlike the Second Circuit, however, the Ninth Circuit’s focus was not fact-specific but generally emphasized the insignificance of immigration status when there is no concrete threat of removal, devoting extensive commentary to the low-risk of deportation for most undocumented aliens. The Fifth Circuit joined the Second and Ninth Circuits in concluding that immigration status is neither dispositive nor subject to categorical rules, but instead is one relevant factor in a multifactor test. Like the other factors, however, immigration status should not be considered in the abstract. In other words, proper application of the framework does not assign automatic treatment to any particular type of immigration status. Instead, it agreed with the Second Circuit that an individualized, fact-specific inquiry is necessary in every case.
The Court found that the district court did not clearly err in its factual findings but erred in its legal interpretation and application of the well-settled defense. Although the district court purported to adopt the Second Circuit’s balancing test, it erred in its application by treating immigration status as a factor in the abstract. That is, the district court failed to adequately examine Garcia Peña’s and D.A.P.G.’s actual immigration status. Instead, the district court discredited the impact of immigration status generally by relying on the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning that “the likelihood of deportation of law-abiding aliens ... is small, both because of the sheer number of undocumented immigrants and because the government has set a priority to deport those with criminal records re B. Del C.S.B., 559 F.3d at 1012. This type of broad statement failed to take into account relevant, case-specific distinctions that may exist among and between different immigration statuses. Hence, the district court’s method of analysis and conclusion that D.A.P.G. was well-settled, without a proper analysis of Garcia Peña’s and D.A.P.G.’s specific immigration status, was incorrect.
The Court held that on de novo review, D.A.P.G. and Garcia Peña’s involvement in active removal proceedings had to be considered when balancing the factors. Garcia Peña admitted she and D.A.P.G. received notice of, but did not attend, scheduled final removal hearings in July 2015. These hearings alone distinguished Garcia Peña and D.A.P.G. from the putative individuals described by the Ninth Circuit who will never have contact with immigration authorities. Moreover, D.A.P.G. and Garcia Peña were both within current DHS civil enforcement priorities as new immigration violators. Giving due consideration to immigration status and considering the other relevant factors listed above, the thin evidence in the record did not demonstrate that D.A.P.G. had formed significant connections to his new environment. D.A.P.G. turned six years old the day before the bench trial. He was a very young child not able to form the same level of attachments and connections to a new environment as an older child. See Lozano, 697 F.3d at 48 (noting that the district court found the five-year-old child “too young to form certain types of connections”). Although D.A.P.G.’s residence was stable, he had lived in New Orleans less than a year. At the time of the bench trial, D.A.P.G. had regularly attended kindergarten for three weeks. D.A.P.G.’s acquaintances in the community were dependent on his mother. He had an infant half-sister who is one of two relatives in New Orleans. In comparison, he had a large extended family through both his mother and father in Honduras. D.A.P.G. attended church regularly with his mother. Garcia Peña was employed in a hotel housekeeping department and was able to provide for D.A.P.G.’s needs. As to the seventh factor, immigration status. D.A.P.G. and Garcia Peña are both illegally present in the United States and involved in active removal proceedings. This involvement in active removal proceedings and categorization as new immigration violators seriously threatened their ability to remain in the United States. Balancing the above factors on de novo review, the Court was not persuaded that D.A.P.G. has formed significant connections to his new environment and thus concluded D.A.P.G. was not well-settled under the Convention.