Temporary Suspension & Increased Costs for "Premium Processing"​ of Visas

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced two major changes to their "premium processing" programs, which allows employers and foreign nationals to pay an optional USCIS filing fee to guarantee a response on their petition within 15 days.  The first announcement is an increase in the premium processing fee.  Beginning October 1, 2018 the premium processing fee will increase from $1,225 to $1,410.  

USCIS' second announcement is an extension of their ongoing suspension of “premium processing” for most H-1B visa petitions until February 19, 2019.  USCIS had previously announced that they were temporarily suspending premium processing for new, cap-subject H-1B visa petitions until September 10, 2018.  This new announcement, however, extends the previously annouced temporary suspension through February 19, 2019.  Additionally, beginning September 11, 2019, USCIS will also stop accepting premium processing for any H-1B petition seeking new employment, transfer (i.e. “change of employer”), or amendment which are filed with either the Vermont or California Service Centers until February 19, 2019.

USCIS will, however, continue to accept premium processing for H-1B petitions filed at the Nebraska Service Center by an employer requesting a “continuation of previously approved employment without change with the same employer,” and premium processing for H-1B cap-exempt petitions (such as university, nonprofit research institutions, government research organizations) which are filed only with the California Service Center.

While this temporary suspension of premium processing now impacts most H-1B petitions, it does not affect premium processing for other nonimmigrant visa petitions (including L-1, O-1, TN, and others).  Additionally, USCIS will continue to accept premium processing for H-1B petitions filed prior to September 11, 2018 (when the suspension goes into effect).

This announcement is likely to have a major impact on U.S. employers, international students, and most immigrants seeking U.S. work visas.  First, this news likely means that USCIS processing times for all USCIS filings may increase, causing delays in visa issuance.  Even though, in cases of an H-1B transfer, an H-1B employee can begin working with a new employer upon the filing of the transfer with USCIS, many H-1B employees prefer to wait until they actually receive their H-1B transfer approval notice from USCIS before starting employment with a new employer.  As a result, this may cause delays for employers seeking to onboard new employees.

Additionally, international students currently availing H-1B “cap gap” extensions of their OPT and still awaiting USCIS approval of their cap-subject H-1B petition will need to be mindful of their authorized stay in light of USCIS’ recent unlawful presence memorandum for foreign students.  

In light of this news, H-1B employers and foreign nationals seeking to file any H-1B petitions should plan accordingly.  For assistance in preparing for these or delays, please feel free to contact us.

Immigration Policy Changes for Foreign Students & Exchange Visitors

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) has recently issued two updates that may have major consequences for foreign students and exchange visitors.

Most recently, USCIS issued a policy memorandum which changes the way USCIS will interpret and calculate unlawful presence for F-1 and J-1 visa holders (including their dependents).  Generally, a foreign national who remains in the U.S. beyond the expiration date of their I-94 Arrival/Departure Record begins to accrue unlawful presence, and in certain circumstances, may be subject to a 3-year or 10-year bar to re-admission to the United States.  Under the previous policy, however, foreign national students and exchange visitors who are granted duration of status (D/S) would not begin to accrue unlawful presence until either USCIS made a formal determination that a status violation had occurred or an immigration judge ordered a foreign national deported.

Under the new policy, starting August 9, 2018, F-1 and J-1 visa holders will begin to accrue unlawful presence on the earliest of the following:

  • The day after the student/exchange visitor no longer pursues the course of study or authorized activity, or the day after the person engages in unauthorized activity
  • The day after the grace period, after completing the course of study, program, or practical training (OPT/CPT)
  • The day after the person’s Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record expires;
  • The day after an Immigration Judge orders the person deported or removed.

Simply put, this new policy, will have a dramatic impact on F-1 and J-1 nonimmigrants who are not vigilant with respect to maintaining valid status and/or are engaging in “unauthorized activity.”  

Additionally, last month, USCIS updated its website regarding STEM OPT extensions , which allow F-1 STEM gradates to obtain an additional 24 months of Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization to work for employers that participate in the E-Verify program.  The new USCIS guidance no longer permits students to engage in STEM OPT at third party worksite locations (even if the employer maintains the requisite employer-employee relationship with the STEM worker).

This new guidance changes previous policy which only required the student be a bona fide employee of the employer signing the I-983 training plan.  Now, any employees performing duties at sites not controlled by the E-Verify employer could risk being in violation of their status.

These updates are very nuanced and complex, especially when it comes to when and whether someone is in violation of their status or engaged in unauthorized activities.  As always, if you have questions on these issues or how to maintain status, please don’t hesitate to contact me

Winning The H-1B Visa Lottery

Starting April 2, 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will begin accepting H-1B petitions for Fiscal Year 2019. As in years past, if USCIS receives more than the available 85,000 H-1B visas in the first few days of April, they will use a computer-generated random lottery to select the petitions they will process. Based on the number of petitions received in the first few days of April last year (over 199,000) and the previous year (over 236,000), combined with the current market demand for high-skilled labor and reports of possible changes to visa programs in the future, many our anticipating that USCIS will receive over 200,000 H-1B petitions in the first few days of this April. 

Accordingly, time is running out for employers to timely prepare their H-1B petitions for submission to play in this H-1B lottery on April 2nd. Generally, it takes at least 10-14 days to prepare and file an H-1B petition, due to the prerequisite filing requirements of the Labor Condition Application (LCA), which takes up to 7 business days to certify. Therefore, if you are responsible for your businesses' immigration planning and processing and you have already identified your H-1B candidates, please initiate the H-1B visa process in the next two weeks to ensure it is timely filed. 

In light of recent reports of proposed changes to the H-1B work visa program by the Trump administration, USCIS has confirmed that it intends for the H-1B filing process and procedures to remain the same as it has in previous years.  Nevertheless, as indicated by the massive increase of Requests for Evidence (RFE) and denials of H-1B petitions issued by USCIS over the past year, employers and foreign nationals should be prepared to evidence the following, in order to increase their chances of getting their visa petitions approved:

  1. Document the specific scope and educational requirements for the position to show that the position is one which requires a Bachelor’s degree as a minimum to enter the occupation.
  2. Review the prevailing wage rates for the occupation through the Department of Labor’s Wage Surveys to determine whether the wage level is appropriate for the professional position you are hiring for.
  3. Document the nexus between the foreign national’s degree and the occupation they will be hired for.

WATCH my conversation on how to overcome issues with H-1B RFEs

Needless to say, the H-1B visa petition can be a technical and cumbersome application to file.  Working with qualified counsel will help to ensure technical mistakes are avoided and that a comprehensive petition will have the best chance at winning in the H-1B visa lottery.  If you have any questions about the H-1B visa process, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Potential Changes to High-Skilled Immigration Programs in 2018

The Trump administration’s future immigration intentions were recently announced in their semi-annual Unified Agenda. The Unified Agenda lists possible regulations under development by federal agencies for the coming year. The announcement indicates the administration’s plans to undo Obama administration immigration benefits and impose tighter restrictions on nonimmigrant visa categories, such as the H-1B, H-4, and Optional Practical Training (OPT) for F-1 students.

The agenda specifies the administration’s intent to make the following policy changes in connection with Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order:

  • H-1B Eligibility: Redefining what a “speciality occupation” is for H-1B visa purposes to “increase the focus on truly obtaining the best and brightest.” The proposal would also “revise the definition of employment and employer-employee relationship to better protect U.S. workers and wages.” This includes “additional requirements to ensure employers pay appropriate wages to H-1B visa holders.” The rule would also impose additional restrictions on H-1B dependent employers that rely on large H-1B workforces and those employers who have H-1B employees working off-site.
  • H-1B Lottery: Revising the H-1B visa lottery system to establish an electronic pre-registration program for cap-subject H-1B applicants, and tweaking the electronic lottery selection process to award visas to the “most skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.”  
  • H-4 Work Authorization: Elimination of the regulation that allow H-4 visa holders (spouses of H-1B visa holders) to apply for work authorization. The Trump administration has previously indicated its intent to remove this Obama rule which has provided work permits to thousands of H-4 spouses.
  • OPT for F-1 Students: Reforming the OPT program for foreign students (which allows international students to work in the U.S.) in order to reduce fraud and improve protections for U.S. workers who may be impacted by employment of foreign students. Plans include limiting student work opportunities and terminating Obama’s STEM-OPT extension rule, which provides extended work authorization for foreign students with U.S. STEM degrees, from 17 months to 24 months.  

These announcements do not currently modify or rescind any of the above mentioned immigration programs, and any changes to immigration policy can only be accomplished through notice and comment of proposed rulemaking in the federal register. This means that individuals and companies that may be affected by potential policy changes will have an opportunity to submit comments to the government before the policy becomes effective. The notice/comment process can typically take in excess of 6 months, which means the administration may not have enough time to enact changes to the H-1B visa program in time for this year’s filing season (which begins on April 2, 2018). 

As always, individuals and employers who may impacted by any of these potential changes should contact us with questions on how to best prepare.

Visa Extensions Will Face Higher Scrutiny

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has annouced updated policy guidance, which now instructs immigration officers to apply the same level of scrutiny to both initial visa petitions and visa extension petitions in certain nonimmigrant categories, including the H-1B visa.  This new policy rescinds the current practice which instructs officers to give “deference” to the findings of a prior approved visa petition when adjudicating petition extensions (i.e. visa renewals), as long as the key elements were unchanged and there was no evidence of a material error or fraud related to the prior determination.

This new policy will impact all employers who are seeking to file an extension of a nonimmigrant visa for any of their international employees.  In particular, those individuals who may currently be on an H-1B, L-1A, L-1B, O-1, E-3, or other nonimmigrant visa will likely face increased scrutiny in the adjudication of their petition to extend/renew their visa.  Based on this new USCIS guidance, employers should prepare to demonstrate and document each and every eligibility criteria for a particular visa, as if they are filing a new petition.  This new policy, along with the recent announcement requiring in-person interviews for individuals seeking employment-based green cards, may also continue to lead to delays in visa processing.

This change, once again, appears to fall in line with President Trump’s “extreme vetting” immigration plans.  Nevertheless, it should always be the practice of a qualified immigration attorney to file all visa petitions (including visa extensions) as a standalone petition, evidencing how the Beneficiary and Petitioner meet the eligibility criteria for the visa.  Even more so now that USCIS may use this policy to essentially re-adjudicate the initial visa petition when adjudicating visa extension petitions.  Employers and applicants should therefore work closely with counsel to provide substantial documentation of compliance with the current terms of employment (i.e. worksite information, salary, job duties, etc.), along with evidence of maintenance of immigration status and the job that will be performed during the requested visa extension time period.   Our office will continue to monitor the rollout of this new policy. For questions or help in preparing your visa extension petition, please contact us.

What DACA Recipients & Employers Need to Know About The End of DACA

President Trump has announced his plans to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides “temporary relief from deportation” and work authorization for certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. when they were minors. There are over 800,000 DACA beneficiaries across the country, the majority of whom are legally employed by U.S. employers.

As of September 6, 2017, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) will no longer be accepting new DACA applications, however, current DACA recipients will be permitted to retain both the period of deferred action and their employment authorization until they expire. Individuals who currently have an initial DACA request pending with USCIS will have their cases adjudicated on a case-by-case basis. Those individuals with their deferred action expiring before March 5, 2018 must apply to renew their DACA (for a two-year period) before October 5, 2017. After March 6, 2018 no more DACA renewal applications will be accepted by USCIS.

WORK AUTHORIZATION

Through the DACA program, beneficiaries receive Employment Authorization Documents (also known as “work permits” or “EAD” cards) which provide lawful work authorization with U.S. employers. These cards are issued for limited periods of time and have expiration dates. Despite this new policy which will terminate the ability to renew EAD cards, current valid EAD cards will continue to provide lawful work authorization for those beneficiaries, until the EAD expires. This means DACA beneficiaries are allowed to legally continue working for U.S. employers with their EAD card until the expiration date on the card. While employers may not be aware of their employees who are on DACA until it comes time to reverify an employee’s work authorization in the Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification process, employers are not legally obligated to terminate an employee until after their EAD card has expired. 

SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS, DRIVER’S LICENSES, AND ADVANCE PAROLE CARDS

Social security numbers for DACA recipients will remain valid and can continue to be used for banking, education, housing, and other reasons. Driver’s licenses should also remain valid until the expiration date of the card (but double check with your State’s motor vehicle department to confirm). While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has indicated they will still honor valid Advance Parole documents, which provide immigration officers with discretionary authority to permit an individual to return to the U.S. after foreign travel, DACA beneficiaries are advised not to travel internationally, due to the risk of being denied re-entry into the U.S. upon return.

IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT

Information which DACA recipients provided to DHS in their DACA applications will not be proactively provided to Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), or shared with other law enforcement entities for the purpose of immigration enforcement proceedings, unless an individual poses a risk to national security or public safety. ICE has said that it has no plans to target DACA holders as their permits expire and that they will continue to remain low enforcement priorities. 

OTHER IMMIGRATION OPTIONS

DACA recipients may be eligible for other immigration relief either through family or employment. Employers with overseas offices may be able to employ affected individuals abroad. DACA recipients may be able to obtain work authorization and/or lawful residence in another country and may even be able to do so from within in the United States. 

Individuals and employers should contact qualified legal counsel to understand their options. As always, we will continue to monitor this recent DACA update and continue to provide additional analysis as information continues to become available. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

The Future for U.S. Work & Student Visa Programs Under Trump’s Next Executive Order

In follow up to last week’s Executive Orders, President Trump may be gearing up for his next round of Executive Orders which look to tighten U.S. work visa programs (including the H-1B visa), impose stricter limitations on foreign students, eliminate the International Entrepreneur Rule, and enact measures that will severely curtail the options for U.S. employers (especially in the tech sector) to attract the smartest and most innovative minds to our country. These proposed rules do not appear to suspend or terminate any foreign national’s current work authorization or visa status, but it does direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to review all immigration regulations that allow foreign nationals to wok in the United States. Let’s look at what this could mean for visa holders, employers, and all foreign travelers to the U.S. in the future:

How will this impact the H-1B work visa?

The Executive Order does not propose immediate changes to the upcoming (April 3, 2017) H-1B visa program, but it does indicate the administration’s intent to revise the H-1B work visa lottery system in the future to prioritize applications for those who are paid higher wages and/or have advanced education. 

How will this impact the F-1 OPT student programs?

The Executive Order directs DHS to “reform practical training programs for foreign students to prevent the disadvantaging of U.S. students in the workforce, better protect U.S. and foreign workers affected by such programs, … and improve monitoring of foreign students.” While this would seem to indicate that steps will be taken to curtail current Optional Practical Training (“OPT”) programs available to F-1 students, it is not clear how DHS will modify the regulations.

How will this impact current visa-case processing and/or Green Card priority dates?

The Executive Order directs DHS to “restore the integrity of employment based visa programs to better protect U.S. and foreign workers” affected by those programs. While this guidance is vague, this could signal an increase in Requests for Evidence and Notices of Intent to Deny in immigration cases, as immigration officers may begin to apply stricter adjudication standards. This may also mean the introduction of new employer obligations as it pertains to recruiting and/or prevailing wages. Any changes to the Visa Bulletin system could result in a retrogression in Visa Bulletin priority dates.

How will this impact the International Entrepreneur Rule?

While the proposed Executive Order does not single out the recently published International Entrepreneur Rule (set to go in to effect this summer), it does call for the elimination of any use of parole that “circumvents statutory immigration policy,” which essentially would end the rule.

How will this impact L-1 intra-company transferee visa holders?

The Executive Order directs DHS to conduct site visits to all places where L-1 visa holders (international executive and managers) work, including third-party worksites. It also directs DHS to begin conducting site visits for all visa categories within two years.

How will this impact business / tourist (B-1/B-2 visa) visitors?

The Executive Order directs DHS to clarify the types of activities that are and are not permissible for B-1/B-2 visa visitors. Individuals entering the U.S. on B-1/B-2 visitor visas, should anticipate more comprehensive scrutiny at all ports-of-entry.

 

These Executive Orders also direct the Department of Labor to investigate more abuses of work visa categories, and require more employers seeking to sponsor foreign workers to participate in the E-Verify employment authorization program.

Businesses, foreign workers, and international students considering filing for an H-1B work visa this year should begin preparing their H-1B visa petitions NOW. Demand for H-1B visas on behalf of foreign employees is expected to reach record levels this year. Due to lengthy prerequisite filing steps which must be completed before the H-1B petition can be submitted to USCIS on April 3rd, employers should begin preparing their petitions NOW to ensure they are ready on time.

Employers, foreign nationals, and international students who may be impacted by changes to any of these proposed regulations should contact an Attorney immediately to begin evaluating legal strategies.  If you have any other questions, please contact me.

New Rules For Employment-based Immigrant & Nonimmigrant Visa Programs

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has published new regulations to provide greater flexibility for high-skilled foreign workers who have an approved employment-based immigrant visa petition, while they wait for a green card.  The intent of these new rules will better enable U.S. employers to sponsor and retain high-skilled foreign workers, increase the ability of such workers to seek promotions, accept lateral positions, change employers, or pursue other employment options.  

The highlights of this rule change, include:

  • Retention of Approved Immigration Visa (I-140) Petitions:  Immigrant petitions submitted by U.S. employers to request permanent employment on behalf of a foreign national (Form I-140) may no longer be automatically revoked based on a request by the employer to withdraw the petition.  Additionally, the immigrant petition will not be revoked if the the request to withdraw is based on the termination of the employer’s business 180 days after either the I-140’s approval or the filing of an I-485 application for adjustment of status.  While the I-140 would remain valid, the foreign national would need a new job offer or new petition in order to apply for a green card.
  • Nonimmigrant Visa Grace Periods:  A one-time grace period of up to 60 days whenever employment ends, will allow for greater job portability for nonimmigrant workers (especially H-1B, E-1, E-2, E-3, L-1, O-1 and TN visa holders).  During the grace period the nonimmigrant worker may apply for an extension of stay or change of status.  While the nonimmigrant will not be authorized for employment during the grace period, it will provide flexibility to allow for new employment in case of sudden termination.
  • Employment Authorization in Compelling Circumstances:  In compelling circumstances, DHS will allow certain individuals with an approved I-140 petition, who are unable to obtain an immigrant visa because of numerical limits, to apply for a one-year employment authorization document (EAD).  This new rule would only apply to individuals in E-3, H-1B, H-1B1, L-1 or O-1 status.  DHS has identified “compelling circumstances” as serious illness or disabilities, employer retaliation, other substantial harm to the applicant, or significant disruption to the employer.
  • Employment Authorization Document Processing:  Certain individuals may be granted automatic EAD extensions for up to 180 days, so long as they timely renew their EAD and it is based on the same employment authorization category as the existing EAD.  The extension is available only to certain foreign nationals, including adjustment of status applicants and individuals filing for renewal of Optional Practical Training (OPT) based on a degree in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) field. This provision does not apply to H-4, L-2, or E nonimmigrant spouses seeking an EAD renewal.

The new regulation will become effective January 17, 2017, three days before Donald Trump takes office.  These regulations should remain in place, unless Congress acts to cancel them.  Please contact our office for further questions or clarification.

What Your Vote Means for Immigration

As I discussed almost a year ago, immigration has become one of, if not the, key issue in the U.S. Presidential election.  As we reach the final stretch of this election season and voters finally get to go to the polls to cast their votes, its important to consider what your vote might mean for U.S. immigration policy.  Whether you’re for stiffer enforcement of our borders, new options for more highly-skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants to work in the U.S., or pathways for legalization of undocumented immigrants, the future of millions of people will be shaped by your vote in the next few weeks.

Nearly everyone agrees that the U.S. immigration system needs to be overhauled, but there is a lot that goes into that.  Yes, its a broken system, but fixing it is not easy…it involves actual people, families, careers, futures.  So what would the Democrat and Republican presidential contenders do to tackle these challenging issues?

Visas and Green Cards

Trump says that allowing foreign nationals to work in the U.S. weighs down salaries, keeps unemployment high and makes it difficult for American workers to earn a middle-class wage.  He would put an end to the H-1B work visa program and suspend the issuance of green cards to require U.S. employers to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program.

Hillary has called for providing lawful permanent residence (“green cards”) to foreign students who earn advanced STEM degrees from U.S. universities.  She has also voiced support for visas for international entrepreneurs who come to the U.S. to establish tech companies and who have financial support from U.S. investors.  She would provide pathways to permanent residence for foreign nationals who create jobs for U.S. workers and meet certain other performance criteria.  

Undocumented Immigrants

Hillary would like to expand the DACA and DAPA programs to defer the deportation and provide work authorization for undocumented individuals who are either children or the parents of children born in the U.S., while deporting undocumented immigrants who are violent criminals and terrorists.  Clinton also seeks to get rid of the 3 and 10 year bars to re-entry when undocumented immigrants leave the country as part of the process to legalize their status.

Trump’s plan calls for the deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., allowing some to return to the U.S. under a more stringent legal process.  His plan would impose criminal penalties on immigrants who stay longer than their visa departure date.

Border

Trump intends to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and have Mexico pay $5-10 billion to build the wall.  Clinton, on the other hand, has called for increasing enforcement of our borders, but opposes a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Clinton and Trump clearly seem to be taking opposite roads on their quest for immigration reform.  Clinton’s immigration reform plans stress her commitment to keeping families together, giving undocumented immigrants a chance to get right with the law, and provide new pathways for immigrant integration and employment opportunities.  Trump’s immigration reform plans focus on American workers and suspending benefits and immigration options to foreign nationals.  

Regardless of where you stand on these issues, your vote will have a dramatic impact on the social, cultural, and economic future of our country.