November 23, 2011


By Cyrus D. Mehta

The USCIS announced that November 22, 2011 was the final receipt date for accepting H-1B petitions under the 65,000 cap of FY2012. The 20,000 advanced degree cap was reached even earlier on October 19, 2011. Any H-1B petitions filed after that date will get rejected. The new fiscal year started only on October 1, 2011 and the H-1B cap was reached less than 2 months later.

If a company now wishes to hire a badly needed engineer from abroad, it will need to wait till October 1, 2012 before this person can come on board. It is self evident that the cap hinders the ability of a company to hire skilled and talented workers in order to grow and compete in the global economy. The hiring of an H-1B worker does not displace a US worker. In fact, research shows that they result in more jobs for US workers.

What is particularly counterintuitive with the H-1B cap is that it completely negates the recent Administration’s policy to encourage foreign entrepreneurs to create startup companies, resulting in job growth. On August 2, 2011, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano Secretary Napolitano and United States Citizenship and Immigrant Services Director Mayorkas made dramatic announcements advising that foreign entrepreneurs could take advantage of the existing non-immigrant and immigrant visa system to gain status and permanent residency. According to the DHS press release, these administrative tweaks within the existing legal framework would “fuel the nation’s economy and stimulate investment by attracting foreign entrepreneurial talent of exceptional ability.” In the H-1B Question and Answers accompanying the August 2, 2011 announcement, the USCIS appears to reaffirm the existence of the separate corporate entity, and its ability to sponsor its owner or investor on an H-1B visa so long as an employer-employee relationship can be demonstrated between the company and the beneficiary. This may be established by creating a separate board of directors, which has the ability to hire, fire, pay supervise and otherwise control the beneficiary. There is nothing preventing such a board constituting foreign nationals or family members of the beneficiary.

In the experience of this author, the August 2, 2011 announcement fired the imagination of lots of entrepreneurs who had dreams of making it big in the US, notwithstanding the sluggish economy and the stubbornly high unemployment rate. With the convergence of social media, wireless technology and the cloud, it has never been easier for anyone anywhere to be an entrepreneur and also have access to the best infrastructure. Foreign students while still in their dorms have dreamed of starting Facebook-style ventures and being able to work for them under an H-1B visa. Many inquiries came in from people in other parts of the world with bold new ideas about how to go about this, and while the August 2, 2011 policy may yet not have seeped down into the rank and file of the immigration bureaucracy, it was possible to outright win the occasional H-1B visa for a client who was part of an interesting startup. All these entrepreneurial dreams have now been dashed with the announcement of the H-1B cap being reached on November 22, 2011 – and that too just before Thanksgiving. The August 2, 2011 policy will never be able to take fruition, at least until October 1, 2012, and allow entrepreneurs to thrive in the US and create jobs. While there are other options for entrepreneurs, using a startup for an H-1B visa did not require huge sums of money or a close affiliation with a foreign entity. Unlike the Treaty Investor Visa, which only applies to nationals of countries that have a treaty with the US (and the dynamic BRIC countries are excluded), the H-1B visa was open to all nationals.

Mr. Mayorkas has also been receptive to initiating changes in the USCIS Adjudicators Field Manual and training manuals for the USCIS, based on suggestions by Vivek Wadhwa and other entrepreneurs. These suggestions intend to make USCIS examiners aware of some unique features of startups, especially those in stealth mode, which may lack extensive promotional materials and the like. The lack of an organizational structure in a startup ought not to dissuade the USCIS from granting an H-1B visa. While entrepreneurs may be able to avail of other green card categories, such as the National Interest Waiver, the H-1B visa allows the entrepreneur to quickly enter the US and be able to work through his or her startup. After the announcement of the H-1B cap, unless one has been the subject of a prior approved H-1B petition, and thus been counted before in the past 6 years, the H-1B visa will not be available until Ocotber 1, 2012, and a person brimming with bright ideas may be better off setting up the startup in another country even if Mr. Mayorkas is willing to make changes in the AFM.

It is obvious that we need more H-1B numbers, but will Congress, which is in a stalemate, rush to the rescue of US employers and startups? Other factors have also contributed to the cap being reached so soon this year. Perhaps, certain parts of the economy have been ticking again, and employers were scrambling to fill positions with badly needed foreign skilled workers. Business immigration lawyers, after all, tend to see upticks and downturns in the economy faster than others! The wholesale denial of L-1B visas at the US Consulates in India may have probably forced companies to rely on the H-1B visa more than necessary. Note, though, that many prefer the L-1B to the H-1B since the spouse of an L-1 worker can also work in the US. The H-4 spouse, by contrast, is not allowed to partake in any activities that have the semblance of work, even if it is selling a work of art that was created as part of a hobby. The H-4 spouse has to obtain his or her own H-1B. Clearly, the decline in L-1 approvals in India has sucked up more H-1B numbers this year. Finally, the B-1 in lieu of H-1B visa was also placed under a lot of scrutiny this year, which robbed those who were assigned to the US on short term assignments easy flexibility and also forced them to use the H-1B visa.

AILA President Eleanor Pelta sums it all up very nicely, “During a time when job creation is the nation’s number one priority, why are we still fiddling around with an outmoded quota system that ignores the importance of immigrants to the economic engine? The marketplace dictates the pace and type of demand by business for specialized workers. To be more competitive globally, we really should be smarter about our high skilled visa distribution so that it is related to market needs instead of pinned to a static limit that was determined by Congress in the last decade. Congress needs to be working on ways to make the visa system work for fueling the economy. The status quo is no longer acceptable.”

November 11, 2011


By Cyrus D. Mehta

Alabama’s immigration law, HB 56, is aimed at making life miserable for unlawfully present immigrants, and is intended to drive them out of the state. The law criminalizes a person’s very existence in Alabama. Many portions of the law have been enjoined pending appeal by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in USA v. Alabama, 2011 WL 4863957 (C.A 11 (Ala.)), although some very troubling provisions still remain and have taken effect.

What is the role of the attorney in advising non-citizens who may be committing crimes in Alabama by virtue of simply being alive in Alabama? At this point in time, Section 30, which is very much in effect, makes it a felony for an alien not lawfully present in the United States to enter into a “business transaction” with the State of Alabama or any political subdivision thereof. Although “business transactions” may be thought of as activities such as renewing a license or commercial activities with the government, it already appears to be going beyond these activities and can apply to any dealings with state or local governments. A powerful IPC Report highlighting Section 30’s impact, Turning Off The Water, gives the example of an Alabama probate court putting out a notice that all individuals conducting business transactions with it must provide proof of US citizenship or that they are lawfully present in the US. Hence, a woman unlawfully present in the US who is applying to change her name after divorce from her abusive husband may be committing a felony under Section 30. The IPC Report also states that the town of Allgood, Alabama, has interpreted this provision to require all water customers to provide an Alabama driver’s license or Alabama picture ID in order to keep current water service. Alabama Power has asked for proof of lawful presence when a family tried to get electricity reconnected.

Model Rule 1.2(d), which has its analog under state bar rules, provides, “A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows to be criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist the client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.”

Does this mean that an attorney cannot advise a client who is unlawfully present to apply for the probate of her deceased husband’s will? Must an attorney thus advise an unlawfully present parent of three US citizen children to no longer contract with an Alabama utility for water and electricity in her modest dwelling? There are other provisions that also criminalize the person’s very being but have been temporarily blocked. Section 11(a) makes it a misdemeanor for an unauthorized alien to apply for, solicit, or perform any kind of work. Section 13(a)(2) makes it unlawful to encourage an unlawful alien to come to Alabama. Thus, an immigration attorney who represents a US citizen living in Alabama temporarily for work related reason, and who wants to sponsor his unlawfully present spouse living in Tennessee for a green card, may violate Section 13 if the attorney encourages her clients to live together in Alabama in order to strengthen their case to further establish that the marriage is bona fide.

Some provisions were not blocked before the law took effect. For instance, Judge Blackburn in the lower district court decision, USA v. Alabama, 2011 WL 4469941 (N.D. Ala.) did not enjoin Section 10, which criminalizes one who fails to carry a registration document and who is in the US unlawfully. Section 10 was enjoined only on October 14, 2011 by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and was effective from September 30, 2011 until October 14, 2011. An attorney may have represented an unlawfully present client who had no registration documents, but who was eligible for asylum, and it took time to prepare and file a solid asylum application. If this attorney, even if outside Alabama, in the course of the representation logically advised the client to remain in Alabama in violation of Section 10 while it was in effect, would he or she have breached an ethical rule?

Sections 5 and 6 state that government officials including “an officer of a court” cannot block the enforcement of immigration laws by “limiting communication between its officers and federal immigration officials.” Because “an officer of the court” could include an attorney, this might require attorneys to reveal information about their clients to immigration officials, if demanded by government officials. This provision has already stirred consternation among local attorneys, and the President of the Morgan County Bar Association has predicted that there will be many lawyers who will challenge this provision before turning client information in to the government. Clearly, Sections 5 and 6 breach the Sixth Amendment right to counsel as the essence of this right is the ability to have privacy of communication with counsel. See U.S. v. Rosner, 485 F.2d 1213 (2d Cir. 1975). Even outside the criminal context, the same analogy applies to Sections 5 and 6. Federal statutes and regulations provide a right to counsel in removal proceedings, INA § 240(b)(4)(A), 8 C.F.R. § 1003.16(b), 8 C.F.R. § 1240.3, and any Alabama attacks on lawyer-client confidentiality would most certainly be a violation on the Supremacy Clause.

An ethical argument can be made that a lawyer may represent unlawfully present non-citizen clients in Alabama if they can ultimately seek an immigration benefit under federal law. For instance, a person who is unlawfully present is not driven out of the US under federal law, unlike Alabama, but has a right to appear before an Immigration Judge in a § 240 removal proceeding. As indicated in my prior blog on the ethical role of the lawyer in advising undocumented clients, under federal law, being unlawfully present is generally an infraction under civil immigration statutes. This individual may seek various forms of relief in removal, including cancellation of removal under INA § 240A or adjustment of status under § 245. He or she may still be considered unlawfully present under federal law, but can apply for work authorization, while pursuing relief applications, even if they have been denied in the first instance and are being appealed in federal court. Even a person who has an outstanding order of removal may seek to apply for an administrative stay of removal or supervised release as well as apply for work authorization. While this unlawfully present individual legitimately pursues relief and is permitted to work, his or her existence in Alabama is criminalized and is not allowed to contract with the state for electricity and water. Further examples of how Alabama’s, and even Arizona’s, anti-immigrant laws absurdly conflict with federal law are amplified in David Isaacson’s blogs. A lawyer, after discussion the consequences of various courses of conduct, may permit a client to disobey a law if the lawyer in good faith believes that this law will ultimately be held unconstitutional. Arizona’s law, SB 1070, which contain many similarly ridiculous provisions that conflict with federal law, has been enjoined as unconstitutional in USA v. Arizona, 641 F.3d 399 (9th Cir. 2011). A law that is ultimately held to be unconstitutional is no law at all. Of course, the lawyer bears some risk if the law’s constitutionality is ultimately upheld, but it may also be possible, that under federal law his or her client may have obtained permanent residency after being unlawfully present, or at least been granted permission to remain in the US to pursue applications for immigration benefits.

November 7, 2011


By Cyrus D. Mehta

On paper, there are many attractive options for foreign entrepreneurs to live and work in the US temporarily without investing large sums of money. This blog takes the reader through these options, but will also make one aware about the many traps that may befall him or her on the way to achieving fame and fortune in the land of opportunity. This may sound a bit cliché as the US economy remains sluggish and the unemployment rate hovers over 9%, along with the fact that immigration bureaucrats have been tending to restrictively apply the rules. Yet the Administration, at the highest levels, has welcomed entrepreneurs and investors. On August 2, 2011, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano Secretary Napolitano and United States Citizenship and Immigrant Services Director Mayorkas made dramatic announcements advising that foreign entrepreneurs could take advantage of the existing non-immigrant and immigrant visa system to gain status and permanent residency. According to the DHS press release, these administrative tweaks within the existing legal framework would “fuel the nation’s economy and stimulate investment by attracting foreign entrepreneurial talent of exceptional ability.” Many were left wondering whether this was simply hot air or whether it represented an attitudinal shift to encourage a surge of entrepreneurs into the US.

H-1B Visa

The DHS announcement acknowledged that the H-1B visa, which is the workhorse nonimmigrant work visa, could be used by entrepreneurs who formed their own entities and were even the owners of these entities.The H-1B visa requires the employer to demonstrate that the position normally requires a bachelor’s degree is a specialized field, regardless of the size of the company or the investment. Prior decisions have recognized the existence of the separate corporate entity as being able to petition for the beneficiary, even though it may be solely owned by him or her. However, in recent times, this concept got somewhat muddied by the insistence that the sponsoring entity also control the H-1B worker’s employment, and such a sponsorship could not be possible when the H-1B worker owned the sponsoring entity. In the H-1B Question and Answers accompanying the August 2, 2011 announcement, the USCIS appears to still hold the line about the need to demonstrate an employer-employee relationship, but has conceded that this can nevertheless be demonstrated even when the owner of the company is being sponsored on an H-1B visa. This may be established by creating a separate board of directors, which has the ability to hire, fire, pay supervise and otherwise control.There is nothing preventing such a board constituting foreign nationals or family members of the beneficiary.

Yet, despite this announcement, USCIS officers in the field still appear to display an anti-small business attitude. Take the example of Amit Aharoni, an Israeli citizen who graduated with an MBA from Stanford University. He founded a hot startup,, and received over $1.65 million in venture capital funding. The H-1B visa that was filed on his behalf by the company got denied and he was forced to leave the US and run his company from Canada. It was only after ABC news reported the story that the USCIS changed its mind and reversed the denial.Since the H-1B visa requires a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field, be aware that when one is managing a small company as its CEO, the USCIS may absurdly view the position based on old administrative decisions as too generalized and not requiring a specialized bachelor’s degree. See Matter of Caron International Inc., 19 I&N Dec. 791 (Comm. 1988). While Mr. Aharoni was fortunate that the USCIS relented because the media shone a bright light on his case, one wonders how many similar deserving cases that have not received media attention have been denied, resulting in the loss of so many jobs here. The H-1B visa is also subject to a 65,000 annual cap, which gets exhausted well within the fiscal year.

L-1A Visa

If the entrepreneur has been running a company in his or her home country as a manager or executive, the L-1A visa also readily lends itself to a foreign national who wishes to open a branch, subsidiary or affiliate in the US, but it is important that the beneficiary must still be able to establish that he or she will work in an executive or managerial capacity. The source of the salary can come from the foreign entity. Matter of Pozzoli, 14 I&N Dec. 569 (RC 1974). A sole proprietorship can also qualify as a qualifying entity for L purposes. Johnson-Laid v INS, 537 F.Supp. 52 (D. Or. 1981). If the beneficiary is a major stockholder or owner, then "the petition must be accompanied by evidence that the beneficiary's services are to be used for a temporary period and evidence that the beneficiary will be transferred to an assignment abroad upon the completion of the temporary services in the United States." 8 CFR § 214.2(l)(3)(vii). The purpose of this regulation is to ensure that the beneficiary will maintain the qualifying foreign entity, which is a pre-requisite for the L visa. The entity in the US must generally be the subsidiary, parent or affiliate of the foreign entity.

Yet, in recent years, the USCIS has come down on L-1A petitions by small businesses with a heavy hand. Denial decisions often argue, albeit erroneously, that the manager in a small business would also be involved in day to day operations, which are considered disqualifying activities. Despite the salutary amendment to the L-1A definition by the Immigration Act of 1990 to also include one who manages an essential function, INA § 101(a)(44)(A)(2), as opposed to people, the USCIS appears to have read this provision out of the INA by insisting that such a manager still cannot perform the duties of the function. There have also been credible reports that the US Consulates in India have been denying L visa applications in what is thought to be an unofficial trade war against India, although these also include employees of established global companies who are applying for L-1B specialized knowledge visas.

E-1 and E-2 Visas

The E-1 and E-2 visa categories lend themselves readily to foreign entrepreneurs, but they are only limited to nationals of countries that have treaties with the US. This category thus disqualifies entrepreneurs from dynamic BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China. For the E-1 visa, the applicant must show substantial trade principally between the US and the foreign state. For the E-2 visa, the applicant must demonstrate that he or she has made a substantial investment in a US enterprise. While there is no bright line amount as to what constitutes a substantial investment, it must be weighed against the total cost of purchasing the enterprise and whether the investment will lead to the successful operation of the enterprise. However, based upon the proportionality test in the Foreign Affairs Manual,the lower the cost of the enterprise, the investor under the E-2 will be expected to make a higher proportion of investment. 9 FAM 41.51 N.10. Note that the E-2 visa will be denied if the enterprise is marginal – if it does not have the present or future capacity to generate more than a minimal living for the investor and family.

Conclusion: The Importance of Foreign Entrepreneurs

These three options, if applied consistent with the true intent under their respective statutory statute provisions, provide wonderful opportunities for foreign entrepreneurs, including students graduating out of a US university, to implement their business ideas in the US. Unfortunately, in recent times, immigration adjudicators have become the self-appointed guardians of US economic well being by assuming that the entry of foreign nationals in the US would eliminate US jobs. In fact, it is quite the opposite as such individuals through their innovations will generate more jobs for Americans. New York City Mayor Bloomberg has categorically called the failure to bring in foreign entrepreneurs and skilled workers as being akin to committing “national suicide.”There also exists the Employment-based Fifth Preference (EB-5) pursuant to INA §203(b)(5) resulting in permanent residency, which is specifically designed for investors, but this involves an investment of $1 million (or $500,000 in targeted areas with high unemployment or that are rural) and the creation of 10 jobs. Investments in designated regional growth centers allow the showing of the indirect creation of 10 jobs and also allow passive investment. The H-1B, L and E categories can offer speed and flexibility to a foreign entrepreneur who may not be able to afford a $ 1 million or $500,000 investment, and the need to immediately create 10 jobs. Also, the EB-5 option is fraught with risks if the investor cannot show his or her own source of funds and if the 10 jobs are not created directly or indirectly at the end of the two year conditional residency period. Another important bill, the Startup Visa Act, remains stuck in Congress as a result of partisan stalemate, which would allow the investor to demonstrate that he or she has obtained funding or created jobs to a lesser degree than the EB-5. While we wait for the Startup Visa, an enlightened interpretation of the already existing H-1B, L and E visa categories for entrepreneurs will surely benefit the US at this point of time and be consistent with the Administration’s August 2, 2011 announcement.