Foreign Students Will Face New Threats

 DHS’s Fall 2017 regulatory agenda proposed “comprehensive reform” to practical training programs, which allow foreign students to obtain paid work after graduation – a pathway that often leads to H-1B and green card sponsorship by a U.S. employer.  Although no final rule has yet been published, ICE is still expected to end an Obama-era provision that extended practical training from one to three years for graduates in STEM fields who work for employers enrolled in E-Verify. ICE may also be looking at ways to restrict the standard one-year work permit that all students are eligible for, regardless of academic field.

In addition, USCIS’s August 2018 policy memorandum, “Accrual of Unlawful Presence and F, J and M Nonimmigrants,” will continue to adversely affect many students and may increase the number of students who become ineligible to return to the United States for three- or ten-year periods. Because foreign students occupy one of the most rule‑bound U.S. visa categories and depend on school staff to communicate what is permitted and what is not, unwitting lapses are common. Under the new policy, an officer of DHS (which includes ICE, CBP and USCIS) can retroactively determine that a student began accruing unlawful presence on the day they first failed to maintain status. If unlawful presence reaches 180 days, the three-year bar is triggered when the student leaves; a year of unlawful presence triggers the ten-year bar. This is a radical change in practice for students, who have always been admitted not until a fixed expiration date, as others are, but instead for “duration of status,” to more easily allow for changes in their academic programs. Until the August 2018 memo, students did not accrue unlawful presence unless a formal finding was made by USCIS terminating their status. Now, in addition to clarifying that both ICE and CBP can determine when unlawful presence begins, DHS also intends, according to its Fall 2018 regulatory agenda, to establish a maximum period of authorized stay for nonimmigrant students, eliminating “duration of status” benefits altogether.

Compliance and Enforcement Actions Will Broaden

Last year, we predicted that on-site visits by government inspectors to H‑1B and L-1 workplaces would increase and could expand to other visa categories.  We relayed accounts by our clients of site visits for employees on blanket L-1 visas and predicted increased surveillance and inspection in that category. In 2018, ICE initiated more than 6,800 worksite enforcement investigations and almost 6,000 I-9 audits, a four- and five-fold increase from 2017, respectively. We expect to see this trend continue in 2019 in all industries.

USCIS has also ramped up enforcement by focusing resources on its Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (“FDNS”), which conducts administrative investigations of fraud in the context of petitions and applications to USCIS for immigration benefits. According to the USCIS Ombudsman’s June 2018 Annual Report to Congress, in Fiscal Year 2018, FDNS’s staffing levels doubled over FY2012 (from about 750 to more than 1,500), and its approach became more “risk-based,” using fraud criteria to target certain employers. Often, when a case is long past posted processing times, or a status message indicates the case is being held “in abeyance,” it is because FDNS is conducting a heightened background investigation. These can encompass government databases, open source information, physical site visits, written Requests for Evidence, and overseas verifications of foreign records. In 2019, we may see FDNS investigations and heightened background investigations lead to USCIS issuing a higher volume of Notices to Appear (“NTAs”), which initiate removal proceedings against an individual. It remains unclear whether USCIS will prosecute these cases through its own attorneys or, instead, will continue to rely on ICE to represent the government in immigration court. If USCIS has the resources to issue and prosecute NTAs, we may see even longer backlogs in already overloaded immigration court dockets.

We also expect a continued push by the government to make E-Verify mandatory for all U.S. employers. The E-Verify system now has the capacity to check driver’s licenses against databases in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.  This is intended to reduce the number of fraudulent licenses that are presented for identity verification; however, E-Verify cannot determine whether the license actually belongs to a specific individual or compare the picture on the license to the individual.

Enforcement actions we expect to see throughout 2019 go beyond worksite I-9 compliance and E‑Verify. For example, with 2019 only one month old, we have already blogged about a sting operation in which ICE ran a fake university to target recruiters and students who may have knowingly registered despite the lack of instructors and classrooms, in order to obtain work authorization. We can expect to see continued enforcement actions aimed at student visa abuse and other forms of potential immigration fraud throughout the year.

 Public Charge Findings Will Contribute to Decreased Immigration

Individuals who are a “public charge” cannot support themselves through employment, assets or the help of family and friends, resulting in dependency on government benefits and assistance programs. Except for humanitarian categories (refugees, asylees, victims of crime, etc.), current law prevents immigrants from using major federal means-tested benefits for at least five years after gaining lawful permanent resident status; hence, they must be sponsored by an employer or by a family member who meets certain income requirements.  In October 2018, USCIS proposed a rule to greatly expand the benefits that would make someone a public charge, sweeping in many that have historically been exempt, including nutrition assistance from food stamps or the WIC program, health insurance through Medicaid, and housing help through Section 8 vouchers. In addition, the final rule would apply not only to individuals who are immigrating permanently to the United States, but also to those who seek only temporary admission or a temporary extension or change of their nonimmigrant status.  USCIS received more than 200,000 comments on the proposed rule, a daunting number that will take time to review and analyze.  However, because public charge has been a top priority for this Administration, we are likely to see a final regulation in 2019.  It is also likely that we will see litigation after the final rule is published, as it seems geared toward deterring and reducing legal immigration rather than truly examining the likelihood that immigrants will actually become a public charge.

A year ago, we blogged about the changes we saw coming in 2018 for U.S. employers and their employees under the April 2017 Buy American / Hire American executive order.  Though widespread across visa and green card categories, those changes have all amounted to increasing obstacles for U.S. companies to hire, retain and sponsor foreign nationals.  H‑1B workers, their H‑4 spouses, F‑1 students, TN professionals under NAFTA (to be replaced by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, once approved by Congress), and L‑1 managers and specialists who transfer into U.S. companies from related foreign entities – all of these workers, as well as their employers, have been frustrated by dramatically increased processing times, new restrictions on expedited processing, questionable challenges to eligibility, often spurious denials, and generalized errors and oversights by federal immigration agencies.  Unfortunately, we expect these trends to continue, and other non-business-friendly changes are also on the horizon.

H-1B Workers Remain in the Cross-Hairs

In Fall 2017, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a new regulation that would do away with its long-standing H-1B lottery system. Over the years, as demand has grown, while congressionally allocated H-1B numbers have remained static, the annual filing period has shrunk to the first five business days of April, and the odds of being selected in the annual lottery have dropped to below 40 percent.  On January 31, 2019, as we previously discussed, DHS announced the final rule, which simultaneously:  (a) requires employers to pre-register the workers they wish to sponsor and submit petitions only if they are notified that they have been randomly selected to do so; (b) suspends the pre-registration requirement until Fiscal Year 2021; and (c) increases the odds that workers who have advanced U.S. degrees will be selected in the lottery this year and in the future.  The last provision appears to implement Buy/Hire American’s mandate to “ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid.”  However, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, court challenges to the new rule are likely, and with only eight weeks to go before the lottery window opens, any injunctions could disrupt H-1B filing season this year.

EB-1 Worldwide Waiting List Remains Backlogged

As subscribers to our blog were informed last fall, a surprising backlog developed in summer 2018 in the Employment-Based First Preference green card category.  The “EB-1” classification, which includes Outstanding Professors/Researchers, Multinational Managers/Executives, and Aliens of Extraordinary Ability in various fields, is exempt from the usual requirement that an employer prove no qualified U.S. worker is available before sponsoring a foreign national – a preliminary step that often adds a year or more to the overall green card process.  In addition, EB-1 demand has been historically low, even for Indian and Chinese workers, in comparison to other categories that have years-long waiting lists.  For these reasons, EB-1 sponsorship has traditionally been a much faster path to a green card for the lucky few who qualify.  This long-standing state of affairs abruptly changed in August 2018, when a waiting list of more than six years suddenly developed in the EB-1 category for Indians and Chinese and more than two years for all other nationalities.  Although the backlogs were expected to vanish in October, when annual allocations were refreshed at the start of Fiscal Year 2019, a wait list of more than a year has persisted for all countries.  As we explained in our Law360 article in December 2018, EB-1 backlogs may well be the “new normal” for a combination of technical and political reasons.  By regulation, if supply exceeds demand in the EB-4 and EB-5 categories – which include Religious Workers, Special Immigrant Juveniles, International Broadcasters, Panama Canal Zone Employees, Afghan/Iraqi Translators, and Immigrant Investors – those extra green card numbers are allocated to the EB-1 category.  Until last summer, a large “spill over” of this kind occurred every year without fail, keeping the EB-1 category current, or causing only brief interludes late in the year, when green cards were not available for Chinese and Indian nationals.  With a twelve-fold increase since 2010 in EB-4 Special Immigrant Juvenile filings, due to the surge in unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America, and a five-fold increase in EB-5 Immigrant Investors, we anticipate that the EB-1 category will remain retrogressed for the foreseeable future.

H-4 Work Permits Remain in Jeopardy

A year ago, we predicted that the Trump Administration’s threat to eliminate work permits for the spouses of H-1B workers would likely come to pass in 2018. This has not yet occurred, probably because the Administration has had bigger fish to fry, with unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers at the southern border, the resulting family separation crisis, and associated lawsuits.  Nonetheless, this item remains a priority on DHS’s Fall 2018 regulatory agenda.  We anticipate the agency will publish a proposed rule this year and lawsuits will follow.

DACA and TPS Lawsuits Continue

As has been widely reported in the mainstream media, President Trump has ended numerous humanitarian programs, including the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”), as well as Temporary Protected Status for nine nationalities, including several TPS programs that were established more than twenty years ago. As a result of lawsuits filed in multiple states, the government is temporarily enjoined from implementing these actions.  Although first-time applicants may not file for DACA at this time, DHS must continue to accept renewal applications.  However, since DACA work permits are not eligible for the automatic 180-day extension that other work permit categories enjoy, and since USCIS processing time for renewals varies from five months to more than two years at the regional service centers that handle them, DACA workers and their employers continue to face substantial disruptions.

Similarly, the government is prohibited from carrying out TPS terminations while three federal lawsuits move through the courts. Two of those lawsuits challenge terminations for El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti; the third seeks protection for TPS beneficiaries of any nationality who have U.S. citizen children.  Until the injunctions are lifted or the lawsuits resolved, TPS renewals may continue to be filed, and these workers do benefit from the 180-day automatic extension.

Please subscribe to our blog and stay tuned for the second installment of our 2019 forecast, which will cover the F-1 student visa category, worksite visits and other compliance and enforcement actions, and the impact of changes to the “public charge” rules.

In August 2017, rumors began circulating that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was denying applications for advance parole if the applicant had departed the US before the application was approved.

Soon after these reports surfaced, USCIS officially confirmed the change, which was implemented without formal announcement or advance notice of any kind.  Since then, USCIS has indiscriminately applied the policy, including to those who traveled with their existing valid advance paroles (for example, while their renewals were pending) or on valid “dual intent” visas, such as H and L.

H and L workers have historically traveled freely and without adverse impact after filing both advance parole and adjustment applications, while others – such as those on E, O, P, and TN visas – are held to a “non-immigrant” intent standard and must wait for advance parole before traveling.

This week, USCIS revised its advance parole policy yet again, this time by adding “Special Instructions” to its website, Application for Travel Document | USCIS, which read as follows:

If you file Form I-131 … to request an advance parole document and depart the United States without possession of an advance parole document that is valid for the entire time you are abroad, your Form I-131 will be considered abandoned.  At times, an individual may have an approved advance parole document while a second one is pending.  [Those] individuals may travel … provided the document is valid for the entire duration of the time abroad.  The pending Form I-131 will not be considered abandoned in this situation.

Since these “Special Instructions” do not exempt “dual intent” nonimmigrants, H and L workers should expect continuing denials of their advance parole applications unless they hold existing parole valid for the entire duration of their foreign trips.

On October 3, 2018, California U.S. District Judge Edward Chen granted a preliminary injunction in the case of Ramos v. Nielsen, preventing the Department of Homeland Security from terminating Temporary Protected Status for El Salvador (scheduled to end on 9/9/19), Haiti (7/22/19), Nicaragua (1/5/19), and Sudan (11/2/18).  The injunction remains in place until the Court lifts it or the lawsuit ends. Continue Reading California Court Temporarily Enjoins Administration from Ending Temporary Protected Status; Other TPS Lawsuits Proceed

On June 28, 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a policy memo telling adjudicators when they are required to issue Notices To Appear after denying or while processing a petition or application for benefits.  The NTA is the charging document that, once filed with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice), puts an individual into formal removal proceedings before an immigration judge.

Except in certain, very limited circumstances where USCIS is required by statute to issue NTAs, the agency has discretion whether to refer an applicant or petitioner to immigration court or to Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).  USCIS issued its last formal policy on the exercise of this discretion in November 2011, almost seven years ago.

Under the earlier guidance, adjudicators were told they must issue non-statutory NTAs or refer to ICE only if the person posed a serious threat to national security or public safety or if USCIS could formally substantiate that fraud had occurred.  If people were being investigated or had already been arrested or detained for an egregious crime – murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, a serious crime of violence, alien smuggling, child pornography, or felony reentry after removal – they should be issued NTAs or referred.  For citizenship applicants, adjudicators were told to consider the “totality of the circumstances” before issuing an NTA, including how long it had been since a crime was committed, whether people had reformed their lives, how long they had been in the country, and what social contributions they had made, such as pursuing an education or serving in the military.

The new policy keeps all of the prior guidance, but expands on the prior grounds and lists completely new grounds, vastly increasing the numbers of people who must be issued NTAs or referred to ICE.  These new categories include Temporary Protected Status applicants whose countries’ TPS designations have been terminated; cases in which not only fraud, but also misrepresentation and public benefits abuse, have been substantiated; aliens who have been convicted of or charged with any criminal offense, or who have simply committed acts that could be charged; and all citizenship applicants who are denied due to a criminal offense, regardless of mitigating circumstances.

Perhaps the most radical departure from prior policy is that the new memo targets for removal simply anyone whose petition or application of any kind is denied, leaving them with no underlying status.  In virtually all cases, these are people who held valid status at the time of filing because those without status are ineligible to file for any but humanitarian benefits, and there are special exceptions for them.  Thousands of those who will be most affected by the new NTA guidance are people whose underlying status – including work-authorized status for US employers – will have expired while they were waiting for a decision from USCIS.  Although the law confers ongoing lawful presence of up to 120 days past an expiration date while awaiting a decision, USCIS now takes far longer than that to process even the most routine requests.  Waits of 6, 10, even 24 months are common.

Previously, USCIS’s practice was to warn failed applicants or petitioners that if they no longer held valid status when their requests were denied, they should leave the country as soon as possible, allowing for orderly and generally reliable departures among those who were here only temporarily in the first place and who maintained strong ties to their home countries and could easily return to pick up the thread of their former lives.  If those same people now leave the United States after an NTA is filed with EOIR, resulting in their not appearing at a court hearing, they will be issued removal orders in absentia and face 5-year bars to returning to the United States in any status.  In addition, those who are in removal proceedings cannot work legally, and many could be detained for weeks pending their bond hearings.

The new NTA memo has been hugely controversial, with many believing it converts USCIS, which was established by Congress as an immigration benefits agency, into largely an enforcement arm of the executive branch, without congressional authority to do so.  On July 30, 2018, USCIS postponed implementation of the policy memo, citing a delay in “operational guidance” from USCIS components.  No specific new implementation date has been provided.  Please subscribe to our blog for updates.

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (“USCIS”) announced today that it has now completed returning all petitions that were not selected in the Fiscal Year 2019 H-1B lottery.  Employers who filed petitions should now have received either a Form I-797 receipt notice with assigned receipt number, or the original rejected petition including filing fees.  USCIS will take inquiries if employers believe they filed during the required period – April 2 to April 6, 2018 – and have not received a receipt notice or rejected petition by August 13, 2018.

 

In a closely watched asylum appeal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has issued a decision that will adversely affect the ability of victims of domestic and gang violence to find protection in the United States.

Matter of A-B- was originally decided, in December 2016, in favor of the asylum seeker by the Board of Immigration Appeals.  The BIA is an administrative branch of the US Department of Justice.  It accepts appeals, filed by either government attorneys or immigrants, of decisions made by civil immigration courts throughout the country.

In late 2016, the BIA overturned the 2015 denial of A-B-‘s asylum claim by a judge in Charlotte, North Carolina, where asylum was denied at a rate of 72 to 84.5 per cent between 2011 and 2016.  Finding the denial was “clearly erreoneous,” the BIA said A-B- had proven she was persecuted based on membership in a “particular social group”; specifically, “El Salvadoran women who are unable to leave their domestic relationships where they have children in common.”

In March 2018, Sessions referred the BIA’s decision to himself – a controversial practice that gives a political appointee, and the head of a law enforcement agency, absolute power to overturn the decision of an independent and neutral tribunal of administrative judges.  Sessions’s decision yesterday, which comes as a surprise to no one, vacates the BIA’s grant of asylum as “wrongly decided” and says:  “The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes—such as domestic violence or gang violence—or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”

Calling it “an affront to the rule of law,” a group of 15 former immigration and BIA judges said Sessions’s finding erased “a 15-year process through the immigration courts and BIA” to develop nuanced and reliable legal standards on the “particular social group” basis for asylum.

On May 18, 2018, after receiving a notice from the Government of Ecuador terminating that country’s bilateral investment treaty with the United States, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Trade Representative announced the termination in the Federal Register.  The treaty has been in force since 1997.

Continue Reading Termination of U.S.-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty Affects E-2 Visa Eligibility for Ecuadorean Nationals

If 2017 is any indication, the new year will bring a fresh cascade of changes – both announced and unannounced, anticipated and unanticipated – in the business immigration landscape.  Few, if any, of these changes are expected to be good news for U.S. businesses and the foreign workers they employ.

In 2017, while much of the news media focused on the Trump Administration’s draconian changes to practices and policies that affected the undocumented – including ending the DACA Dreamer program, shutting down Temporary Protected Status for citizens of countries ravished by war and natural disaster, and aggressively enforcing at the southern border and in “sensitive” locations such as churches, courthouses, and homeless shelters – relatively less attention has been paid to the steady, incremental erosion of rights and options for legal immigrants, particularly those who are sponsored for work by U.S. employers, under the Administration’s April 2017 “Buy American / Hire American” executive order.  There is no doubt that such restrictions to the legal immigration system will continue to cause business uncertainty and disruption in 2018.  Here’s what to expect:

Continue Reading Buckle Your Seatbelts: 2018 Will Be a Watershed Year in Business Immigration

On December 4, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two orders (available here and here) that allow the Presidential Proclamation of September 24, 2017, otherwise known as the “Travel Ban,” to go into effect while appeals continue in the lower courts.  The practical effect of SCOTUS’s actions is to reinstate this version of the Travel Ban fully.  See our earlier blog entry, New Presidential Proclamation Modifies Travel Ban; SCOTUS Reacts, for a full explanation of which countries are targeted in the revised Ban and which citizens of those countries are subject to U.S. travel restrictions under the Ban.

In October, a federal judge in Maryland granted a temporary injunction preventing the revised Ban from going into effect against those who have a bona fide relationship with a U.S. person or entity.  Another federal court, in Hawaii, also blocked implementation of the Ban.  However, the government appealed those rulings to the federal appellate courts for the Fourth and Ninth Circuits, respectively, where the issues remain pending.  In November, the government went higher still, asking the Supreme Court to allow full enforcement of the Ban while the Fourth and Ninth Circuits consider the government’s appeals of the lower courts’ injunctions.  SCOTUS has now granted that request, although, as each order specifies, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor were not in favor of granting.  Both federal appellate courts will hold oral arguments this week, and both have agreed to expedite their decisions so that the Maryland and Hawaii cases may move forward quickly.

If either or both Circuits eventually rule against the government, thereby leaving the lower courts’ injunction in place, the government could ask the Supreme Court to review those rulings.  If that happens and SCOTUS refuses to hear the government’s request for review, then SCOTUS’s orders will automatically terminate, thereby putting the Travel Ban on hold yet again, until final decisions are made in the Maryland and Hawaii federal courts.