Didn’t Get An H-1B Visa? Here Are Your Alternative Immigration Options.

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced that it reached the annual 85,000 H-1B visa cap in the first five days of April 2019.  Specifically, USCIS received 201,011 H-1B cap cases (an increase from last year), which means that once again, USCIS will conduct a computer-generated lottery in the coming weeks to determine which petitions they will process. Employers who have their petitions selected in the lottery will receive a receipt notice from USCIS, and if approved, can have their employees begin working for them in H-1B status on October 1, 2019. Petitions that are not selected in the lottery will be returned to the employers with their money back.

USCIS will continue, however, to accept H-1B petitions year-round from employers who are exempt from the H-1B cap (such as universities, nonprofits affiliated with institutions of higher education, or nonprofit research organizations), as well as petitions to extend the status of those currently in H-1B status or for those in H-1B status seeking to change employers.

While no more new H-1B visas will be available for employers and foreign nationals seeking to apply in 2019, many candidates may be eligible for other alternative visa options. The following visa categories are available throughout the year, without numerical caps, for qualifying foreign nationals:

  • L-1 Visa: For intracompany transferees who have worked for a foreign entity for one year and are seeking to transfer to a U.S. subsidiary, affiliate, parent, or branch office in the U.S. in a managerial, executive, or specialized knowledge capacity

  • E-1/E-2 Visa: For international investors or traders from certain treaty countries looking to engage in substantial trade between the U.S. and their foreign country or to develop and direct the operations of an enterprise in which the foreign national has invested. The E-1/E-2 visa is a great option for foreign entrepreneurs seeking to work in an essential capacity for their U.S. entity.

  • O-1 Visa: For foreign nationals of extraordinary ability who have achieved national and international recognition for extraordinary achievements in their field of endeavor.

  • TN Visa: For Canadian and Mexican citizens employed in certain professional categories seeking to engage in U.S. employment. Examples of qualifying TN professional occupations include, but are not limited to Engineer, Accountant, Architect, Computer Systems Analyst, Geologist, Geophysicist, Graphic Designer, Management Consultant, Scientific Technician, Engineering Technicians, and many occupations in the medical and allied health field.

  • H-3 Visa: For foreign nationals coming to the U.S. to engage in a course of training.

  • E-3 Visa: For Australian citizens who will be employed in a specialty occupation in the U.S. (similar requirements to the H-1B visa).

Watch our immigration videos for additional information on these visas and to learn more about the eligibility requirements. As always, if you have questions about the H-1B visa cap or any of these work visa options, please contact our office.

New H-1B Visa Lottery Process

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services  (USCIS) has announced a proposed rule that will dramatically shift how H-1B visa petitions are selected in its H-1B cap lottery selection system.  The proposed regulation would create a mandatory online preregistration system for employers to register each individual’s H-1B cap petition and reverse the order in which USCIS selects H-1B petitions under the H-1B cap and advanced degree exemptions.

Currently, the H-1B visa allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign nationals with a bachelor’s degree or higher in occupations that require a theoretical and practical body of highly specialized knowledge.  Each year, on April 1st, USCIS makes 85,000 H-1B visas available.  If USCIS received more than 85,000 petitions, they institute a computer-generated lottery system to randomly select the petitions that will be adjudicated. 

Employer Pre-Registration System

Under this proposed rule, USCIS would create a mandatory online preregistration process whereby those employers who intend to file H-1B cap petitions would be required to submit an online registration for each potential H-1B beneficiary, during a designated registration period before April 1st.  USCIS would then conduct a lottery and select registrations to meet the H-1B visa cap.  Those registrations that are selected will be notified and given a 60-day window in which to file their H-1B visa petition on behalf of the foreign worker named in the original registration.  According to the proposal, an employer could potentially wait until they have been notified of selection before filing a Labor Condition Application and preparing the corresponding H-1B petition for the intended beneficiary.

The online registration would request information about the employer (i.e. company name, address, Federal Employer Identification Number, etc.), along with information about the intended H-1B worker (i.e. name, date of birth, citizenship, passport, and education credentials).  There will be no fee to register an H-1B worker, but employers would be limited to one registration per individual per year.

The preregistration period would begin at least 14 days before April 1st and last for at least two weeks.  USCIS would announce the dates for the preregistration period online at least 30 days before it starts.   

New Lottery Selection Process

While the H-1B cap will remain at 85,000, USCIS intends to reverse the lottery order in which it selects H-1B petitions for adjudication, to increase the amount of H-1B visas awarded to foreign nationals with U.S. master’s degrees and higher.  Currently, USCIS first conducts a lottery for 20,000 H-1B visas for individuals with a U.S. master’s degrees and higher (the “advanced degree cap”).  Those individuals with advanced degrees not selected in that lottery are added to the pool of 65,000 H-1B visas (the “regular cap”), for another chance to be selected with individuals who only have a bachelor’s degree.  Under the proposed rule, USCIS would conduct the regular cap lottery first and include all advanced degree holders.  Those with advanced degrees not selected in the regular cap would be placed in a second lottery, if there are enough advanced degree holders to meet the advanced-degree lottery.

In accordance with the Trump administration’s previous announcements for employment-immigration reforms, USCIS believes this change to the lottery system would increase the chances of H-1B visas to be awarded to individuals with U.S. master’s degrees and higher.   

Implementation

Currently, these are only proposed rule changes.  While USCIS has stated their intention to have these new rules in place before the April 1, 2019 H-1B visa season, the proposed regulations also would allow USCIS to temporarily suspend the registration process due to technical challenges with the registration process or online system.  In the meantime, employers and foreign nationals should submit their public comments on this proposal HERE, before January 2nd.

What Employers & Foreign Nationals Should Do Now

Regardless of whether USCIS will be able to implement these changes before the April 1st H-1B filing deadline, employers and foreign nationals should begin preparing H-1B petitions NOW for the possibility that they will need to submit their complete H-1B visa petitions on April 1st.   

For any questions on the H-1B visa process or these changes, please feel free to contact me.

New Immigration Policy to Deny Cases Without Issuing RFE or NOID

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has released a new policy that gives immigration adjudicators discretion to deny any and all visa applications or petitions without first issuing a Request for Evidence (RFE) or Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID) in cases where initial evidence is missing or does not establish eligibility. This new guidance, which becomes effective September 11, 2018, replaces a prior policy which instructed adjudicators to request additional evidence in a case, unless there was no possible way that additional evidence could fix a deficiency in the case.

The intent of this guidance is to provide immigration officers with more discretion to deny a visa application without requesting further information first. This policy has even greater implications in light of USCIS’ other recent announcement instructing officers to initiate removal (deportation) proceedings if, upon denial of an application or petition an individual is unlawfully present in the United States. 

As USCIS continues to shift away from a focus on immigration benefits to a focus on immigration enforcement and stricter standards for approval of visa petitions, employers and foreign nationals should consider the following strategies to avoid consequences imposed by these new rules:

  • Take all precautions to ensure visa petitions and applications are filed with the requisite documentation and evidence. This includes overdocumenting how the employer and employee meet all of the visa eligibility requirements.
  • Applications to extend nonimmigrant visa status (including H-1B, L-1, O-1, and others) should be filed as early as possible (up to 6 months before expiration) to avoid any lapses in nonimmigrant status.
  • Employer’s should continue to extend the nonimmigrant status of their foreign national employees until their applications for lawful permanent residence are approved, in order to avoid situations where the employee is in unlawful presence and could be deported.
  • Employer’s should consider utilizing USCIS’s “premium processing” program when filing “change of employer” visa petitions to quickly obtain work authorization for a candidate and not have a candidate risk changing employers without an approval.

These new USCIS policies reinforce the importance of ensuring all visa petitions and applications include the required evidence to show the applicant meets the visa eligibility requirements. The chances of having a family or employment-based visa petition or application denied are significantly reduced when working with qualified immigration counsel to prepare a comprehensive application.

For more information or advice on how to navigate these or any other immigration policy changes, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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

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.

New Employment Eligibility Verification, Form I-9

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) has annouced the release of a new version of the Employment Eligibility Verification, Form I-9, which is used to verify the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired to work in the United States. Employers and Human Resources staff may begin using this new Form I-9 or continue to use the current version of the Form I-9 (dated 11/14/16 N) through September 17, 2017.  Beginning September 18, 2017, employers must use the new form.  

The revised form includes some cosmetic changes, along with changes related to acceptable I-9 verification documentation, including Consular Reports of Birth Abroad.  USCIS plans to update its M-274 “Handbook for Employers: Guidance for Completing Form I-9” in the near future.

This change, in addition to the recent increase in penalties for employment verification errors, are of significant importance to employers and Human Resources departments, as all U.S. employers must ensure proper completion of Form I-9 for each individual they hire.  More importantly, as the workforce compliance landscape continues to evolve, employers should take this opportunity to evaluate their current I-9 policies and procedures to ensure they are in compliance with the latest I-9 and E-Verify rules.  As part of this process, employers should:

  • Review current I-9 policies and practices with qualified counsel.  This includes careful analysis of all workforce compliance practices to mitigate errors and mistakes on the form;
  • Develop formal I-9 and E-Verify protocols for detecting, preventing, and improving against I-9 violations;
  • Mitigate historical I-9s with qualified counsel to help avoid against fines and penalties for certain technical or procedural errors on the forms;
  • Develop, implement, and maintain compliance policies for worksite raids.

For any questions on employment eligibility or workforce compliance issues, please feel free to contact us.

Department of Labor Announces Increase in Investigations of Employment-Based Immigration Programs

The Labor Department has announced plans to more aggressively enforce employment-based nonimmigrant visa programs and crack down on abuses of worker visa programs through increased investigations.  The statement, made two months after U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services announced it would begin targeting certain H-1B visa employers, calls for:

  • Use of all tools (including audits and site visits) to enforce labor protections provided by visa programs, including H-1B and E-3 visas;
  • Development of changes to the Labor Condition Application, which is used by employers in all H-1B filings, to identify violations and fraud;
  • Coordination between departments to strictly enforce visa program rules and make criminal referrals.

While more specific enforcement details have yet to be outlined, employers should be prepared for increased scrutiny of all visa applications and more site visits.  These proposed enforcement activities are in line with President Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order and employers should be actively working to ensure they are in compliance with all Department of Labor visa regulations.

Alternative Work Visas to the H-1B

Just as it has done the past four consecutive years, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced that it has received enough H-1B petitions to fulfill its annual H-1B quota and will no longer accept new cap-subject H-1B petitions until April 1, 2018.  This is to say, in the first week of April 2017, USCIS received in excess of both 65,000 general H-1B cap petitions for individuals with at least a Bachelor's degree and in excess of 20,000 U.S. Master's degree H-1B petitions.

USCIS will therefore conduct a computer-generated random lottery of those H-1B petitions received between April 1 - April 7, 2017 to determine which petitions will be selected for processing.  If selected and approved in this lottery beneficiaries may begin working in H-1B status for their employers starting October 1, 2017.  Petitions not selected in the lottery will be returned to employers along with the filing fees.

USCIS, however, will continue to accept H-1B petitions year-round from employers who are exempt from the H-1B cap, as well as petitions to extend H-1B status or change employers for those individuals currently in H-1B status.

Alternative visa options are available, though, for those employers and employees who fail to receive an H-1B visa.  The following visas are available throughout the year, without numerical caps, for qualifying foreign nationals:

  • TN Visa:  For Canadian and Mexican citizens employed in certain professional categories seeking to engage in U.S. employment
  • L-1 Visa:  For intracompany transferees who have worked for a foreign entity for one year and seeking to transfer to a U.S. subsidiary, affiliate, parent, or branch office in the U.S. in a managerial, executive, or specialized knowledge capacity
  • E-1/E-2 Visa:  For international investors or traders from certain treaty countries looking to engage in substantial trade between the U.S. and their foreign country or to develop and direct the operations of an enterprise in which the foreign national has invested
  • O-1 Visa:  For foreign nationals of extraordinary ability who have achieved national and international recognition for extraordinary achievements in their field of endeavor
  • H-3 Visa:  For foreign nationals coming to the U.S. to engage in a course of training
  • E-3 Visa:  For Australian citizens who will be employed in a specialty occupation in the U.S.

If you have questions about the H-1B visa cap or any of these work visa options, please contact our office.

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.

New Form I-9 to Verify Employment Eligibility

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released a new Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification form.  The new Form I-9 takes employment eligibility verification out of the realm of paper documentation and provides new electronic enhancements, such as:

  • Drop-down functionality for filling in lists and selecting dates;
  • Prompts on certain fields to ensure information is entered correctly;
  • Additional room to allow for multiple preparers and translators;
  • Embedded instructions for completing each field;
  • Buttons that will allow users to access the instructions electronically, print the form, and clear the form to start over;
  • A dedicated area to enter additional information that employers currently have to jot in the margins of the form;
  • A barcode unique to each form to identify it for audit purposes.

Employers may continue to use the current version of the Form I-9 (the one with a revision date of 3/8/2013N) until January 21, 2017.  After January 21, 2017, all previous version of the Form I-9 will no longer be valid.

These changes, in addition to the recent increase in penalties for employment verification errors, are of significant importance to employers and Human Resources professionals.