Do’s & Don’ts in H-1B Filing Season

Each year prior to April employers and their prospective employees vying for the much coveted H-1B status, of which currently only 85,000 visas are available every year, work to file their cases with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) and hope that they will actually have their H-1B applications approved.  Because so much can be at stake in these filings, potentially resulting in loss of job and business opportunities, not to mention potentially displaced foreign nationals who would not be able to be in or continue to stay in the United States absent other viable immigration options, paying attention to details and making sure that a filing is done correctly may make all the difference.

For a comprehensive overview of the H-1B process, read my article Basic Overview of the H-1B Visa Qualifications and Procedures.

Here are some basic guidelines that should always be observed in H-1B filing season:

  • DO start early in the planning process and DON’T wait until the last minute to begin an H-1B case.  The process of gathering the required information and documents in each case can take a few days to several weeks or longer, depending on the size of the employer and the unique situation of each prospective employee.  Additionally, before an H-1B application can be submitted to USCIS, an employer also needs to file a Labor Condition Application (LCA) with the U.S. Department of Labor, which can take up to 7 working days to certify.  Filing an H-1B application without a certified LCA is counterproductive as USCIS will simply reject and return the entire filing, therefore it is important to allow enough time before April 1st to plan, stay organized and make sure that the LCA is in hand.
  • DO expect that the employer or the H-1B petitioner will remain actively involved throughout the entire process.  DON’T rely on the prospective H-1B employee to do all the legwork.  The H-1B is an employment-based process, and the petitioning employer must be aware of what is involved and have a keen understanding of the process itself.  Having the prospective employee “take care of things” generally would not benefit anybody, including the H-1B employer.
  • DO have a clear understanding of the proposed H-1B position, its duties as well as the wage requirements.  DO make sure that the proposed position is a good match for the prospective employee’s skills and qualifications.  DO check that the H-1B candidate has the necessary documentation to demonstrate that he/she is qualified for the proposed position.  DON’T rush through this process as USCIS may very well come back and challenge the merits of this H-1B filing later.
  • DO have a backup plan.  DON’T put all eggs in one basket, as the expression goes.  If the prospective employee was not fortunate enough to have his/her H-1B application selected for review by USCIS, he or she might need to go back to school, apply for another work visa, or return to his/her home country.  Whatever the option may be, it is important to think through these less desirable but possible scenarios ahead of time.  A good strategy is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

For more information about this process schedule an appointment with our office today.

Treaty Traders and Investors

Foreign nationals who wish to come to the U.S. to engage in international trade or to direct and operate a business investment may do so if they are citizens of a country that has entered into a qualifying Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation or its equivalent with the United States using the E visa.  This is a temporary, non-immigrant visa that may be obtained from overseas at the U.S. Embassy or consulate through consular processing or from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services if the foreign national is filing from within the U.S. for an extension or a change of a status.

The list of qualifying treaty countries can be found on the U.S. Department’s website, which currently can be accessed here.  Eligible visaholders may enjoy their E visa status for two years at a time, to be renewed in two year increments for an indefinite number of times, provided they continue to meet the visa requirements.

E-1 Treaty Traders

E-1 Treaty Traders are either traders coming to the U.S. to carry on a trade of a substantial nature for him/herself, someone else, or for an organization engaged in trade, or as an alien employee of a treaty trader coming to the U.S. to assume an executive or a supervisory role or some essential function for the efficient operation of the trade enterprise. To qualify as an employee for E visa purposes the foreign national’s employer must be a national of a qualifying treaty country and must have at least 50% ownership in the business organization.

For the purposes of E-1 visa, trade means the existing international exchange of items of trade for consideration between the United States and the treaty country. Existing trade includes successfully negotiated contracts binding upon the parties that call for the immediate exchange of items of trade. This exchange must be traceable and identifiable. Title to the trade item must pass from one treaty party to the other. Items that qualify for trade include but are not limited to goods, services, technology, monies, international banking, insurance, transportation, tourism, communications, and some news gathering activities. 

For the trade to be substantial there must be continuous trading activities between the United States and the treaty country, regardless of the monetary value. Although the monetary value of the trade item being exchanged is a relevant consideration, greater weight is given to more numerous exchanges of larger value. In the case of smaller businesses, an income derived from the value of numerous transactions that is sufficient to support the treaty trader and his or her family constitutes a favorable factor in assessing the existence of substantial trade.

E-2 Treaty Investors

E-2 Treaty Investors are foreign nationals coming to the United States to invest or to be actively in the process of investing a substantial amount of capital in a bona fide enterprise in the United States for the sole purpose of developing and directing the enterprise.  E-2 status may also be granted to a qualifying employee of a treaty investor as long as the employer maintains his/her E-2 status and has at least 50% ownership of the organization.

A treaty investor must place personal capital (funds or other assets) at risk in the commercial sense with the objective of generating profit.  The treaty investor must be in possession of and have control over the capital invested or being invested. The capital must be subject to partial or total loss if investment fortunes reverse. Such investment capital must be the investor’s unsecured personal business capital or capital secured by personal assets. Capital in the process of being invested or that has been invested must be irrevocably committed to the enterprise. The invested funds may be placed in escrow pending visa issuance, that would not only irrevocably commit funds to the enterprise but that might also extend some personal liability protection to the treaty investor.

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Matter of Simeio Solutions and its Effects on the Relocation of H-1B Workers

H-1B visas are nonimmigrant visas granted to bring a limited number of “specialty workers” to the United States each year.  To qualify as a specialty worker, a beneficiary typically needs a degree and/or specialized training.  The H-1B visa program allows American businesses to fill positions with highly-qualified foreign workers while simultaneously protecting the interests of U.S. workers.

On April 9, 2015, the USCIS Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) issued its precedential decision in Matter of Simeio Solutions.  (26 I&N Dec. 542, 2015.)  This case has significant implications for H-1B workers and employers, as it changes the obligations of H-1B employers if the location of the worksite changes after the petition is filed.           

The Matter of Simeio Solutions

In this case, a would-be H-1B worker requested an H-1B visa at U.S. Embassy office in India, and provided information that contradicted the petition filed on his behalf.  The Embassy returned his petition to California for review, and USCIS began an investigation.  USCIS visited the address that was filed as the place of employment, and found the company had moved to a new location.  USCIS issued a Notice of Intent to Revoke (NOIR) the approved H-1B petition.  The petitioner responded with two new work locations and corresponding Labor Condition Applications (“LCAs”) as the places of employment for the beneficiary.  Both locations were outside of the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) of the original petition, and both areas had higher prevailing wages.  USCIS determined (and the AAO later affirmed in the Simeio opinion) that this constituted a material change in the terms of employment which required a new or amended H-1B petition.

The details of the case are much less significant that the ultimate holding.  Simeio states definitively that a qualifying relocation of the job of an H-1B beneficiary to a new geographical area of employment absolutely triggers the requirement for a new LCA and an amended H-1B petition.  Precisely what constitutes a “new area of employment” is tricky, but crucial, and will be explored in depth.

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Basic Overview of the H-1B Visa Qualifications and Procedures

Background and Basics

The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa that allows United States employers to petition on behalf of a foreign national employee to work in a “specialty occupation” on a temporary basis. While the configuration of the visa program has changed over the years, the current H-1B program has been in effect since the Immigration Act of 1990. Qualifications for specialty occupations will be discussed in more detail, but are generally comprised of highly educated workers like scientists, economists, engineers, and doctors. In fact, almost two-thirds of H-1B visa applicants work in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). These visas do not include workers who may qualify for an O visa (those with extraordinary ability) or P visa (entertainers and athletes). However, fashion models with “distinguished merit and ability,” as measured by prominence in the field, may qualify for H-1B visas.

The goal of the H-1B visa program is to enhance the U.S. economy by bringing skilled foreign workers to fill employments gaps in fields or geographical areas where American workers are lacking. Program guidelines stipulate that hiring the foreign worker must “not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers” This is one of several provisions of the program designed to protect American workers.

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USCIS Interim Policy Memorandum Addressing L-1B Adjudications to Become Effective August 31, 2015

L-1 Visa Background Information

L-1 visas are non-immigrant visas specific to the employees of multinational corporations. These visas provide a means to transfer employees currently working for the company abroad to an affiliated U.S. operation. L-1A visas allow higher-level employees such as executives and managers to transfer to a U.S. company. The L-1B category encompasses other current employees who hold “specialized knowledge” in the field or of the company.

The L-1 visa program began in 1970 to further U.S. business interests by expanding the limited options available to bring workers from the international business community stateside. The requisite “specialized knowledge” was not explicitly defined, however, until the Immigration Act of 1990. Since 1990, USCIS has issued several policy memoranda to clarify the specific criteria required to demonstrate specialized knowledge. Each of these memos sought both to clarify the evidence that a petitioner needs to present, and to reflect more clearly the congressional intent of the L-1 visa program. In creating the L-1 program, Congress sought to “promote the United States as a global business destination” by facilitating international business through the expansion of opportunities for foreign nationals to work for their international company within the United States.

Contrary to the intent of Congress to increase international business, and efforts by USCIS to clarify the L-1B adjudication process, petition denial rates skyrocketed from six percent in FY2006 to thirty-five percent in FY2014. While a confluence of factors likely contributed to this pattern, in November of 2014, President Obama’s vowed that a final memorandum that would clarify L-1B decision-making and help rectify the issue as part of his executive actions on immigration. It has been the hope of stakeholders that new guidance would finally provide predictability to the adjudication process.

USCIS’s Latest L-1B Policy Memo

USCIS posted their Interim Policy Memorandum on L-1B Adjudications Policy on March 24, 2015 (Memo). A period of feedback on the proposed changes was open to stakeholders until May 8, 2015. USCIS is currently taking feedback under advisement, and the Memo, as published or possibly incorporating suggested changes, will go into effect August 31, 2015.

The Memo seeks to clarify the following in respect to L-1B claims: the applicable standard of proof; the elements necessary for approval; the definition of and evidence determining specialized knowledge; factors to be considered in corroborating proof of specialized knowledge; and how qualifying employment (both regular and offsite) can be demonstrated.

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Update on DAPA and Expanded DACA

In November of last year, President Obama announced a series of immigration policy changes.  Many of the changes, relating primarily to employment-based immigration, were uncontroversial and are going forward as planned.  For example, the administrative process for granting permanent residency (“green cards”) for certain workers is being streamlined to avoid backlogs in processing these applications.  In addition, the President directed USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) to issue a memorandum clarifying what types of “specialized knowledge” applicants for L-1B nonimmigrant petitioners need to demonstrate.

Two of the provisions announced in November have met significant opposition.  The first is the expansion of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.  DACA currently allows non-citizens who were brought to the United States as children, and who meet all other program requirements, to be granted lawful presence in the U.S. for a renewable period of two years.  Being granted DACA allows the recipient to live without fear of removal, and makes work authorization available for the two-year period.  The expansion of DACA would increase the renewable time period of lawful presence to three years.  It also seeks to eliminate the requirement that the candidate be born before June 15, 1981, thereby enlarging the pool of eligible applicants.  It is important to note that under neither form is DACA a grant of lawful permanent residence or “asylum” of any kind.

The Executive Action also created a new program, entitled Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA (initially called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability).  DAPA would also grant lawful presence and eligibility for work authorization for up to three years, but to parents of U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident children.  The qualifying son or daughter must have been born on or before November 20, 2014, when the announcement was made, and the parent must have been continuously present in the United States since before January 1, 2010.  As with DACA, other qualifications apply, including successful completion of a background check.  It is estimated that over four million people qualify to receive DAPA benefits.

The States Respond

Within hours of President Obama’s announcement last November, Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio challenged the President’s plan to defer deportations in a Washington, D.C., federal court, in a case named Arpaio v. Obama. The Washington, D.C. federal court promptly dismissed Sheriff Arpaio’s lawsuit. That decision is currently on appeal.

Shortly thereafter, representatives of 17 states filed a similar case in a Brownsville, Texas, federal court, with 9 other states later joining the lawsuit, in a case named Texas v. United States. The states sought an injunction to stop the implementation of DAPA and the DACA expansion.  Texas based its standing to challenge the policy on the alleged harm the state and its citizens would suffer if DAPA were put into place.  Texas currently uses taxpayer funds to supplement the cost of issuing driver’s licenses.  The theory was that since DAPA would entitle recipients to obtain licenses, Texas would either have to spend millions of dollars subsidizing licenses for non-citizens, or completely restructure their fee system.  The court agreed this was a specific potential harm that qualified the petitioning states the power to bring the suit against the federal government.

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Same-Sex Marriage and Immigration

On Friday, June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide.  The below article was written prior to the issuance of this decision and will be updated accordingly to reflect the current state of the law. 

Like many areas of law, immigration is dynamic.  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) monitors relevant case law and makes changes to immigration policy accordingly.  Same-sex couples have made significant legal strides in the past decade, and these victories are reflected in current USCIS policy.  It is crucial that anyone with immigration issues who is in a same-sex relationship finds an attorney who understands how LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) immigrants and their partners are affected by new regulations and procedures.

A Brief History of Immigration Law for LGBT People

LGBT foreign nationals were considered excludable from the U.S. on medical grounds until 1991. This was due to the historical classification of homosexuality as a mental illness.  The psychological and medical fields evolved and changed their stance, and public acceptance of homosexuality as a normal human variation has followed.  From the mid-1990s, individual states began allowing same-sex marriage or alternatives like domestic partnerships or civil unions.

Until recently, same-sex couples were unable to utilize their marital relationship as the basis for applying for immigration benefits, even if they were married abroad or in a state where the marriage was legal.  Under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal government was prohibited from recognizing same-sex marriages for federal programs like Social Security benefits or income taxes. This prevented USCIS from considering a same-sex spouse as an immediate family member for immigration purposes.  Similarly, any immigration benefit that would normally be derivatively available to the spouse or children of a nonimmigrant or an immigrant visa applicant was withheld from same-sex couples.  Immigration benefits were also denied for the step-children of same-sex partners.

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Green Card Through Marriage

Obtaining Permanent U.S. Residence Through Marriage

When a United States Citizen (USC) or Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) marries a resident of another country, the foreign spouse can typically receive a Green Card, granting him or her permanent U.S. residence. In order for the foreign spouse to receive LPR status, the couple must follow the proper procedures, and the foreign spouse must meet certain qualifications. Obtaining a visa and LPR status through marriage has great advantages, one being the absence of statutory limitations (or caps) on the number of these visas that will be issued to immediate relatives each year. Immediate relatives are the spouses, parents and unmarried children under the age of 21 of U.S. citizens. A spouse of a LPR and any unmarried children under the age of 21 are subject to the annual visa cap and may qualify for a Green Card once a visa becomes available to them in the family-based second preference group.

Valid Marriages for Obtaining LPR Status

A couple may marry within the United States or abroad, so long as the marriage is legal and valid where it occurred, and is a type of marriage that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will recognize.   Ultimately, the couple will need to demonstrate theirs is a bona fide marriage; not one entered into for the purpose of obtaining immigration benefits. The application process varies depending on whether the foreign spouse is already in the U.S. or needs a visa in order to travel here. In either scenario the USC or LPR must begin the process by filing an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative with USCIS.

Generally approval of the I-130 requires the petitioning USC or LPR spouse to provide by a “preponderance of the evidence” indications of a valid marriage, including (but not limited to) proof that:

  • The petitioner is a U.S. citizen or qualifying LPR;
  • Any previous marriages of petitioner and beneficiary (foreign spouse) have been legally dissolved; AND
  • Any and all evidence tending to demonstrate the marriage is bona fide and valid, including items such as: the marriage certificate, leases or bank accounts held jointly by the couple, affidavits of friends and family members attesting to the validity of the marriage, photos and evidence of a typical marital relationship, etc.

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Students & Cap-Gap Protection

Since 2008 an F-1 student who has a pending H-1B application at the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) to change status from a student to a professionally skilled worker will be able to automatically extend his/her lawful status until October 1 of the fiscal year for which H-1B status is being requested.  The same is true for students who have been granted optional practical training (OPT) and may continue to remain in the United States and work should their OPT expire before October 1.  Those students who have not been granted OPT will have lawful status to remain in the United States but will not be able to work until their H-1B application has been approved.

For this rule to apply the H-1B application must have been properly filed with USCIS, which means the change of status application was filed during the H-1B acceptance period, while the student’s authorized duration of status (D/S) admission was still in effect (including any period of time during the academic course of study, any authorized periods of post-completion OPT, and the 60-day departure preparation period, commonly known as the “grace period”).  An application is generally considered “filed” once it is accepted by USCIS. In the context of the H-1B lottery, the petition may have been submitted on April 1, but it will not be accepted for processing until after the H-1B lottery has been conducted some weeks later. If the H-1B petition is rejected, denied, or revoked, the automatic extension of status and work authorization will immediately terminate.

 

Using the B-1 Visa in Lieu of the H-1B Visa: Pros and Cons

Normal H-1 requirements:

The H-1B visa is issued to those skilled foreign workers who have a bachelor’s degree or higher in the specialty occupation for which they are being issued the visa.[1] US employers sponsor the foreign worker and file a labor condition application (LCA) with the U.S. Department of Labor, and the employer  makes several attestations in the LCA, mainly the following: the H-1B worker is being paid the same wage as U.S. workers who have similar experience and qualifications for that specific employment;  employment of the non-immigrant does not adversely affect working conditions of other workers similarly employed;, and notice of filing the application was provided to workers employed in the occupation at the place where the H-1B worker would be employed.[2]

Problems with H-1 visa:

Practitioners and applicants for the H-1B visa find that the most salient problem with the H-1B visa filing is the annual cap. Currently, the visa cap is set at 65,000, with an exemption for 20,000 nonimmigrants who hold master’s degrees or higher.[3]  The problem is that the number of applicants greatly outstrips the number of available visas, often resulting in the visa cap being filled on the very first days when filings are accepted.[4]

Therefore, potential H-1B applicants may try to explore alternative methods to enter or stay in the US, without having to deal with the visa cap. One possibility is that worker may come to the US under a B-1 visa. However, this approach is somewhat controversial and not yet widely accepted or understood within the different the government agencies.  Consular posts may not know how to properly adjudicate these applications and even if granted, foreign nationals may encounter problems at the port of entry when the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers are not willing to grant them admission.  The United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) and its predecessor, the legacy Immigration and Nationality Services (INS), have traditionally been hostile to this visa category and viewed it with much skepticism.  Therefore, employers and foreign nationals wishing to pursue this visa option should understand the requirements and proceed with caution.

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