Path to U.S. Citizenship

For foreign national who wishes to gain legal status and eventually citizenship in the United States, this may be achieved in a number of ways. Among the most common methods for a foreign national to achieve citizenship are either through employment or through family, including by marriage. Depending on the foreign national’s circumstances, other methods are also available.

The first step on the road to citizenship is gaining legal entry to the U.S. While foreign national may eventually become a citizen despite illegal entry, the illegality of the entry will make gaining citizenship much more difficult, not to mention having to face possible detention and removal from this country, civil or perhaps even criminal penalties if the reentry was made following an existing removal order.  One can gain entry in different ways, oftentimes using either immigrant or nonimmigrant visa categories; however, some non-immigrant visa categories may not translate to citizenship.

Next, in most cases a foreign national residing in the U.S. would have to first get permanent residency. Permanent residency, or a Green Card, can be awarded following entry with an immigrant visa or can be applied for from within the United States. A permanent resident can travel, re-enter, and work in the U.S. with fewer restrictions than someone with a non-immigrant visa.

Once permanent residence is obtained, the foreign national must live in the United States for five consecutive years before applying for citizenship, or three years if married to a U.S. citizen spouse.  In addition, a foreign national must be able to demonstrate they are of good moral character and take a U.S. history and civics test in English, unless otherwise exempted.

The remainder of this article is dedicated to the various ways one can enter and obtain permanent residency: First, the various possible visas available for temporary entry into the United States, or non-immigrant visas, which require further application for permanent residency; second, the various permanent visas foreign nationals can apply for directly; finally, special categories based on family relations and other unique situations.

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Foreign citizens come to the U.S. for a myriad of reasons – to study, to be with family, to work, to escape persecution, or to share their culture. For every reason, there is generally a corresponding visa category. The U.S. has categories of visas for both immigrants and non-immigrants. Among the most common immigrant visas are family and employment-sponsored ones. In the non-immigrant category, there are temporary visas for those who visit for business or pleasure, treaty investors/traders, students, temporary workers, exchange visitors, those who are engaged to a U.S. citizen, intracompany transferees, those with extraordinary abilities or who are artists or entertainers, persons in religious occupations, and victims of trafficking and criminal activity. In addition, certain people may be eligible for the visa waiver program, which allows individuals from approved countries to gain entry into the U.S. without applying for a visa from their consulate, so long as they have a valid passport and pass the border inspection.

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H-1B for Nurses

Overview

Contrary to what one may believe, most Registered Nurses (RN) or Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN) are not regarded by the government as a profession that is qualified for an H-1B visa. The primary reason lies in the educational requirement for a normal RN or LPN position – typically only two years, which fall short of the four-year college degree requirement for H-1B purposes. To be considered for an H-1B visa, one requirement is that the petitioner, or the employer, must demonstrate that the position is a “specialty occupation.” (see “Basic Overview of the H-1B Visa Qualifications and Procedures”). Generally, a “specialty occupation” can be proved by requiring at least a bachelor degree in a specific field or that the industry standard requires a specific bachelor degree. Usually, nurse manager or an advanced practice positions may qualify for H-1B visas since most of these positions require a Bachelor of Sciences (B.S.) in nursing or a Master of Science (M.S.) degree. However, it may be difficult for RNs or LPNs to be considered for H-1B visas since these positions generally do not require a bachelor’s or higher degree.

Recent Developments at USCIS

In 2002, legacy Immigration Naturalization Service (INS) issued a memorandum providing guidance on this issue and essentially stated that most RN positions would not qualify for an H-1B visa unless the petitioner can establish that the job offered requires at a minimum a college degree. Then, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued an interim policy memorandum on July 11, 2014 that superseded the former 2002 INS memorandum. The 2014 memo that was later finalized in yet another memo in 2015 discusses the changing industry for nurses and that employers now increasingly expect nurses to have a college degree; however, the adjudicatory standard that USCIS uses to review H-1B applications for nurses has remained essentially unchanged. Currently, the requirements of H-1B for nursing are as below: 

  • The position is a specialty occupation;
  • The nurse has a degree or equivalent pursuant to H-1B regulations;
  • The nurse has passed the foreign nurses exam (NCLEX-RN); and
  • The nurse has passed the state licensure.When an applicant is required to prove a lawful employment before obtaining the license from the state or local authority, and the license is required to practice the profession, USCIS will approve a one-year H-1B petition for the applicant to work on obtaining the license. However, the request to extend the H-1B visa will be denied if the applicant is ultimately unable to obtain the license. 

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Asylum Seekers

U.S. Asylum Law

U.S. asylum law is made up of several different legal authorities, including U.S. immigration statutes and regulations, federal case law and international treaties and conventions.  People who are outside of the United States may apply for refugee protection under the United Nations Protocol, to which U.S. is a signatory.  People who have arrived in the U.S. or are physically inside the country may apply for asylum protection.

In order to qualify for asylum protection, an individual must meet the basic definition of a refugee: [A]ny person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or wellfounded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in particular social group, or political opinion.

Persecution

What does it mean to be persecuted? The word itself is not specifically defined in the rules and regulations but through case law the courts have found that persecution exists in the following situations:

  • Serious violations of basic human rights
  • Target of persistent death threats and threats to property and business
  • Severe economic deprivation that threatens an individual’s life or freedom, or cumulative forms of discrimination or harassment rising to the level of persecution
  • Violation of one’s fundamental beliefs
  • In certain circumstances, physical harm to others, such as close family members

The persecutor must be either the government or a group of individuals that the government is unable or unwilling to control.  In cases where the persecutor is not a state actor, an adjudicator will consider the efforts made to inform the government of threats or attacks, as well as governmental efforts to prosecute similar harm.

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An Introduction to Hardship Waivers

A person may be found to be inadmissible to the United States for many different reasons.  These include three- and ten-year bars for unlawful presence; crimes involving moral turpitude (CIMTs); prostitution; simple possession of less than thirty grams of marijuana; certain medical inadmissibility; and misrepresentation. To overcome such an inadmissibility, an I-601 Waiver will need to be filed.  The primary basis to qualify for an I-601 Waiver is to show “extreme hardship” to a qualifying relative.  In some cases, one may also qualify by showing there has been criminal rehabilitation. If someone had been previously removed from the United States, an I-212 Waiver for prior removal is necessary and is not based only on extreme hardship to a qualifying relative, although such a hardship can be used to strengthen a case.

Sometimes there are complications that result in a waiver not being an option. Some of the worst complications are those that create permanent inadmissibility. These include false claims to U.S. citizenship, drug convictions or guilty pleas after age eighteen, gang memberships, and previous findings of marriage fraud or frivolous asylum. There is very little to be done after a finding was made in a prior immigration proceeding that there was a frivolous asylum claim made after April 1, 1997.  However, in other instances it may be possible to challenge a finding of permanent inadmissibility.  For example, it may actually be possible to show that a finding of marriage fraud was an error, especially if the marriage is still intact. It may be possible to argue that a vague drug crime is not a crime pertaining to possession of a controlled substance. A person who had made a claim to citizenship may have been completely unwilling. A person may truly not be a gang member. These are difficult cases but may be worth pursuing as it may very well be someone’s only opportunity to return to his or her family.

The waiver process changes constantly, as does immigration law itself. If you feel that you or someone you know requires assistance in this area please contact our office.

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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