The highest administrative review body in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO). The AAO has jurisdiction to review many types of appeals of denials of USCIS benefit requests.
The vast majority of AAO decisions are what are called “non-precedent decisions.” These decisions are binding on the parties in a specific case, but they do not establish any binding policy or rules for other cases. This means that if the AAO issues a non-precedent decision in one case, the USCIS need not follow that same reasoning in another case and may reach a different result. Despite this, non-precedent decisions can be useful for understanding how the USCIS typically handles certain issues. For example, see our article on the USCIS's application of the Department of State's (DOS's) 30/60 day rule [see article].
On occasion, an AAO decision will be selected for publication as a precedent decision. Precedent decisions must be published in accordance with the applicable regulations, and they are binding on all Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers (USCIS is part of the DHS), and must be published in accordance with the applicable regulations. A significant number of articles on this site cite to precedent decisions, which are easily identifiable by the presence of “I&N” in their titles. In the past, administrative precedent decisions were issued by the then-Immigration and Nationality Service (INS) were and were relatively common (see the list of DHS/AAO/INS decisions [link]). You will often see them discussed in articles that rely on older administrative caselaw, such as our full article about the abandonment of permanent resident status [see article]. However, today, AAO precedent decisions have become relatively uncommon, and the vast majority of published decisions come from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), with a few also coming from the Attorney General (AG). In fact, there were no DHS/AAO/INS precedent decisions in the 12 years that elapsed from the issuance of the decision in the Matter of NY State Dept. of Transportation, 22 I&N Dec. 215 (AAO 1998), to the Matter of Al Wazzan, 25 I&N Dec. 359 (AAO 2010) [PDF version]. Since the Matter of Al Wazzan was published in 2010, we have seen only 11 AAO precedent decisions (as of Aug. 20, 2017). You can read about the most recent decision, which superseded the Matter of NY State Dept. of Transportation, here [see article].
The USCIS may also choose to “adopt” an AAO decision. When the USCIS adopts an AAO decision, it publishes the decision in a USCIS Policy Memorandum and gives the decision a special citation format. An adopted decision constitutes binding policy guidance on all USCIS officers. Unlike a precedent decision, however, an adopted position is not binding on all other DHS agencies and officers. An adopted decision may be subsequently selected for publication as a precedent decision. For example, the Matter of Al Wazzan was initially selected by the USCIS as an adopted decision before being selected for publication as a precedent decision. An adopted decision may also be overruled by a precedent decision or superseded by new USCIS policy guidance.
The following are the USCIS adopted decisions that are currently in effect :
- Matter of A-T- Inc, Adopted Decision 2017-04 (AAO May 23, 2017) [PDF version] [see article]
Qualifying degrees for H1B master's cap exemption
- Matter of O-A-, Inc., Adopted Decision 2017-03 (AAO Apr. 17, 2017) [PDF version] [see article]
Provisional certificates and calculating post-baccalaureate degree experience in EB2 context
- Matter of I- Corp., Adopted Decision 2017-02 (AAO Apr. 12, 2017) [PDF version] [see article]
USCIS cannot approve visa petition based on illegal or invalid employment agreement
- Matter of T-O-S-U-, Adopted Decision 2017-01 (AAO Jan. 4, 2017) [PDF version] [see aricle]
Definition of “physician of national or international renown” in H1B context
- Matter of R-C-C-S-D-, Adopted Decision 2016-04 (AAO Oct. 24, 2016) [PDF version] [see article]
When a language immersion school qualifies as a Q1 international exchange program
- Matter of L-S-M-, Adopted Decision 2016-03 (AAO Feb. 23, 2016) [PDF version] [see article]
Exception to civil penalties for failure to comply with order of voluntary departure for certain victims of domestic violence does not extend to U1 victims
- Matter of Z-A-, Adopted Decision 2016-02 (AAO Apr. 14, 2016) [PDF version] [see article]
Determining when L1A beneficiary will be managing an “essential function”
- Matter of H-V-P-, Adopted Decision 2016-01 (AAO Feb. 9, 2016) [PDF version] [see article]
Qualified medical specialists may qualify for EB2 physician national interest waiver
- Matter of Vazquez, Adopted Decision 07-0005 (AAO July 31, 2007) [PDF version]
Establishing Cuban citizenship for purpose of Cuban Adjustment Act for individuals born outside of Cuba
- Matter of Perez Quintanilla, Adopted Decision 07-0005 (AAO June 7, 2007) [PDF version]
Determining “constructive custody” and when individual qualifies as special immigrant juvenile beyond 18th birthday
- Matter of IT Ascent, Inc., Adopted Decision 06-0001 (AAO Sept. 2, 2005) [PDF version]
Counting period of authorized admission in L1 context
For further reading, please see our overview of the four adopted decisions issued in 2016 [see article].
Please also see our full article on immigration precedent decisions (including published AAO decisions) [see article].
This article offers a brief overview of the various types of AAO decisions. When appealing an adverse decision by the USCIS, one should consult with an experienced immigration attorney in the field of administrative appeals for guidance on how to proceed.