[Also available on Reddit.]
Do I need to appeal an immigration benefits denial by USCIS to the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) before challenging the denial in federal court?
If you are challenging a erroneous USCIS denial using the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), the answer is no in most cases. You can skip the AAO and go straight to federal court. Bypassing the AAO is usually the better litigation strategy. The AAO overwhelmingly affirms denial decisions, potentially adds months of further delays to the process, and may affirm the denial on new or more thorough grounds.
Denial cases challenged in federal court under the APA are decided based on the established administrative record. New evidence is generally not permitted at the litigation stage. Given this, it may make sense to file an appeal with the AAO if the administrative record established during the application stage is deficient. You can use the AAO appeal to bolster the record to make your eventual federal court litigation stronger.
Every case is unique and should be thoroughly vetted by a competent attorney before deciding a course.
* Naturalization cases are subject to separate and distinct process.