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.

During the government shutdown, lasting from December 22, 2018 through January 25, 2019, employers were required to complete and retain Form I-9, Eligibility Employment Verification, for each individual hired during the shutdown, even though E-Verify services were unavailable. However, it was recently announced that E-Verify resumed operations on January 28, 2019 and participating employers have until February 11, 2019 to create an E-Verify case for all new hires during the government shutdown, using the hire date on the employee’s I-9. Employers should be prepared for longer than expected processing times due to the length of the government shutdown and the accumulation of cases now entering the E-Verify system.

In situations where the E-Verify case creation is more than three working days after the date of hire, USCIS instructs employers to select the “Other” option from the drop-down list and enter “E-Verify Not Available.” If the data entered does not match government records and a Tentative Nonconfirmation (TNC) results, any employer on notice of an employee’s intention to contest the TNC by February 11, 2019, must revise the date for employees to begin resolution of the TNC by adding ten federal business days to the date on the employee’s “Referral Date Confirmation” notice.  This only applies to TNC referrals impacted by the government shutdown.  TNC referrals after E-Verify resumed operations do not receive the additional ten days to contest.

Employers should pay close attention to the dates noted above to ensure compliance with E-Verify requirements. If you need assistance with E-Verify and other compliance-related issues, please contact us.

Natalie Tynan is a former DHS lawyer who focuses on immigration compliance and related issues.

In a continuation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”)’s crackdown on fraud among the foreign student population, ICE established and ran “The University of Farmington” in the Detroit suburbs.  As a result, the government indicted eight individuals for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit.  At least 600 foreign nationals obtained fraudulent student visas through ICE’s undercover operation, which had no instructors or classes that would enable students to pursue a course of study.  Recruiters actively identified and helped enroll foreign nationals into the “university” and helped them obtain documentation that was required in order to seek work authorization from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).  Students who enrolled in the “university” also face potential civil and criminal penalties if the government can prove they knew they would not attend classes or pursue a course of study.

Continue Reading Another Fake University – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Stings Again

The New York Times features Suzan Kern in an interview with María, a woman who was sexually assaulted by a Corrections Corporation of America guard while under the custody of ICE, following her release on bond from the Hutto detention center in Texas. CCA violated the terms of its contract with ICE, which mandated that female detainees be transferred with at least one female guard. Instead, CCA’s male guard, Donald Dunn, who assaulted María, transported women alone 77 times in less than a year. “When he let her out of the van at the Austin airport, she ran,” Suzan, María’s pro bono immigration attorney, says in the video. “The guard there at the airport asked her what was wrong and she immediately told him what had happened.” María courageously explains, “I think this happened not only to me but to several people.” Eight women came forward to testify against Dunn, who was convicted and served prison time. Suzan, who also represents another of Dunn’s victims pro bono, believes there were even more, “because these were the women who could be tracked down and who were willing to speak.”

The full article can be found here (for the best viewing experience, please copy and paste the article link into Google Chrome).

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.

As negotiations in Congress continue towards resolving the shutdown of the federal government, individuals and companies that interact with the various federal agencies that administer immigration programs are naturally wondering how they might be affected. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) typically provides clear information about the impact of a government shutdown on its operations. For other agencies, we can only look to prior shutdowns in 2011 and 2013 to understand what to expect.

As a general matter, only “essential” employees will continue to work until funding is restored. The following is what we anticipate with respect to the various agencies Hunton & Williams deals with on behalf of our clients:

Continue Reading How Will the Government Shutdown Impact Immigration? It Depends on the Federal Agency and Program Involved

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