Recipe for Confusion: USCIS Says Only the Final Action Date in Visa Bulletin Protects a Child’s Age Under the Child Status Protection Act

The Child Status Protection Act is one of the most complex pieces of immigration legislation. Passed in 2002, the CSPA protects the age of children who would otherwise not qualify as children if they turned 21. The lack of any regulation has made the legislation even more confusing especially in light of more recent developments such as the introduction of the  dual chart State Department Visa Bulletin in October 2015.

On August 24, 2018, however, the USCIS Policy Manual consolidated the guidance on the CSPA that the USCIS has developed over the years, and definitively confirmed that the Final Action Date in the State Department Visa Bulletin  protects the age of the child rather than the Filing Date. There are other significant interpretative changes too, but this blog will focus on the change relating to the  interplay between the dual chart Visa Bulletin and the CSPA.

On October 1, 2015, DOS introduced two charts in the monthly visa bulletin – Chart A – Final Action Dates and Chart B – Filing Dates.  The Filing Date in the Visa Bulletin potentially allows for the early filing of I-485 adjustment of status applications if eligible applicants are in the United States and the filing of visa applications if they are outside the country. The Final Action Date is the date when permanent residency (the green card) can be granted.  The Filing Date, if the USCIS so determines, allows for the early submission of an I-485 application prior to the date when the green card actually become available. Similarly for those who are outside the United States and processing for an immigrant visa overseas, the Filing Date allows applicants to submit the DS-260 immigrant visa application and become documentarily qualified prior to the issuance of the immigrant visa when the Final Date becomes available. The DOS has historically issued a qualifying date prior to the visa becoming available so that applicants could begin processing their visas. This informal qualifying dates system morphed into a more formal Filing Date in the Visa Bulletin from October 1, 2015 onwards. As a result, the USCIS also got involved in the administering of the Visa Bulletin with respect to the filing of I-485 adjustment applications. Even if the Filing Date becomes available, it is the USCIS that determines whether applicants can file an I-485 applicant or not each month.

The Filing Date has become practically useless for employment-based I-485 applicants since USCIS only allowed I-485 applications to be filed pursuant to the Filing Date in October 2015 and November 2015. Since December 2015, USCIS has never allowed employment-based adjustment applicants to file their I-485s under the Filing Date. On the other hand, the USCIS allows family-based beneficiaries of I-130 petitions to file I-485 applications under the Filing Date, and has continued to so in the September 2018 and the forthcoming October 2018 Visa Bulletins.

Using the Filing Date to protect the age of the child who is nearing the age of 21 is clearly more advantageous – the Filing Date becomes available sooner than the Final Action Date. As of August 24, 2018, the USCIS has made clear through the Policy Manual that only the Final Action Date can be used to determine and freeze the age of a child. Thus, if an I-485 application is filed pursuant to a Filing Date and the child ages out before the Final Action Date becomes available, the child will no longer be protected despite being permitted to file an I-485 application. The I-485 application will get denied, and if the child no longer has an underlying nonimmigrant status, can be put in great jeopardy through the commencement of removal proceedings, and even if removal proceedings are not commenced, can start accruing unlawful presence, which can trigger the 3 and 10 year bars to reentry. If the child filed the I-485 as a derivative with the parent, the parent can get approved for permanent residence when the Final Action Date becomes available while the child’s application gets denied.

In order to avoid such an absurd and cruel outcome, I have consistently advocated that there is a clear legal basis to use the Filing Date to protect the age of a child under the CSPA. While the USCIS has not agreed, I continue to advocate that affected children can challenge USCIS’ interpretation in federal court. There may also be a basis to challenge this interpretation before an Immigration Judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals, and further before a Court of Appeals, if the applicant is placed in removal proceedings upon the denial of the I-485 application. Immigration Judges are not bound by the USCIS Policy Manual.  The USCIS Policy Manual is not law, although applicants should follow the Final Action Date for making the CSPA age calculation unless they have no choice but to challenge this interpretation.

Here is how one can argue the case for CSPA protection under the Filing Date: INA 245(a)(3) only allows for the filing of an I-485 adjustment of status application when “an immigrant visa is immediately available.” Yet, I-485 applications, at least family-based under the current Visa Bulletin, can be filed under the Filing Date rather than the Final Action Date. This suggests that the term “immigrant visa is immediately available” has been interpreted more broadly to encompass dates ahead of when a green card becomes available. Indeed, the Visa Bulletin describes the Filing Date as  “dates for filing visa applications within a timeframe justifying immediate action in the application process.” Under this permissible interpretation, I-485 applications can be filed pursuant to  INA 245(a)(3) under the  Filing Date. There is a difference, for example, in the F2A worldwide Final Action Date in the September 2018 Visa Bulletin, which is July 22, 2016, and the F2A worldwide Filing Date, which is December 1, 2017. Thus, under the Filing Date, those with later priority dates, December 1, 2017,  can file I-485 applications even though those with an earlier priority date, July 22, 2016,  are actually eligible to receive the green card. Still, applicants who file I-485s under both the Filing Date and the Final Action Date must satisfy INA 245(a)(3), which only permits the filing of an I-485 application when “an immigrant visa is immediately available.”

Under INA 203(h)(1)(A), which codified Section 3 of the CSPA,  the age of the child under 21 is locked on the “date on which an immigrant visa number becomes available…but only if the [child] has sought to acquire the status of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residency within one year of such availability.” If the child’s age is over 21 years, it can be subtracted by the amount of time the applicable petition was pending. See INA 203(h)(1)(B).

Under INA 245(a)(3), an I-485 application can only be filed when an  “immigrant visa is immediately available.”

Therefore, there is no meaningful difference in the verbiage relating to visas availability – “immigrant visa becomes available” and “immigrant visa is immediately available” under INA 203(h)(1)(A) and INA 245(a)(3) respectively. If an adjustment application can be filed based on a Filing Date pursuant to 245(a)(3), then the interpretation regarding visa availability under 203(h)(1)(A) should be consistent, and so the Filing Date ought to freeze the age of the child, and the child may seek to acquire permanent residency within 1 year of visa availability, which can be either the Filing Date or the Final Action Date.

Unfortunately, USCIS disagrees. It justifies its position through the following convoluted explanation that makes no sense: “If an applicant files based on the Dates for Filing chart prior to the date of visa availability according to the Final Action Dates chart, USCIS considers the applicant to have met the sought to acquire requirement. However, the applicant’s CSPA age calculation is dependent on visa availability according to the Final Action Dates chart. Applicants who file based on the Dates for Filing chart may not ultimately be eligible for CSPA if their calculated CSPA age based on the Final Action Dates chart is 21 or older.” The USCIS recognizes that the sought to acquire requirement is met when an I-485 is filed under the Filing Date, but  only the Final Action Date can freeze the age! This reasoning is inconsistent. If an applicant is allowed to meet the sought to acquire requirement from the Filing Date, the age should also similarly freeze on the Filing Date and not the Final Action Date. Now, based  on USCIS’s inconsistent logic, the I-485s of many children will get denied if they aged out before the Final Action Date became available. These children must not hesitate to challenge USCIS’s interpretation. Government policy manuals are not the law, and when there is an erroneous interpretation, they ought to be challenged so that USCIS is forced to make the appropriate correction.

Expecting Asylum-Seekers to Become US Asylum Law Experts: Reflections on My Trip to the Folkston ICE Processing Center

US asylum law is nuanced, at times contradictory, and ever-changing. As brief background, in order to be granted asylum, applicants must show that they have suffered past persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and that they are unable or unwilling to return to, or avail themselves of the protection of, their country of origin owing to such persecution. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.13(b)(1) & (2). Attorneys constantly grapple with the ins and outs of asylum law, especially in light of recent, dramatic changes to asylum adjudication.

Even with legal representation, the chances of being granted asylum are slim. In FY 2017, only 45% asylum-seekers who had an attorney were ultimately granted asylum. Imagine, then, an asylum-seeker fleeing persecution, suffering from severe trauma, and arriving in a foreign land where he or she suddenly has to become a legal expert in order to avoid being sent back to certain death. For most, this is nearly impossible, where in FY 2017, only 10% of those unrepresented successfully obtained asylum.

It is important to remember that while asylum-seekers have a right to obtain counsel at their own expense, they are not entitled to government-appointed counsel. INA § 240(b)(4)(A). Access to legal representation is critical for asylum-seekers. However, most asylum-seekers, especially those in detention, go largely unrepresented in their asylum proceedings, where only 15% of all detained immigrants have access to an attorney. For those detained in remote areas, that percentage is even lower.

Given this inequity, I felt compelled to travel to a remote detention facility in Folkston, GA and provide pro bono legal assistance to detained asylum-seekers in their bond and parole proceedings. I travelled along with former supervisors turned mentors, Jessica Greenberg and Deirdre Stradone, Staff Attorneys at African Services Committee (ASC)/Immigrant Community Law Center (ICLC), along with Lucia della Paolera, a volunteer interpreter. Our program was organized and led by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI). SIFI currently only represents detained asylum-seekers in their bond and parole proceedings in order to assist as many folks as possible in obtaining release. Their rationale is that since bond and parole representation take up substantially less time than asylum representation, that they can have a far greater impact in successfully obtaining release for several hundred asylum-seekers, who can hopefully thereafter obtain counsel to represent them in their asylum proceedings.

Folkston is extremely remote. It is about 50 miles northwest of Jacksonville, FL, and nearly 300 miles from Atlanta, GA, where the cases from the Folkston ICE Processing Center are heard. Instead of transporting detained asylum-seekers and migrants to their hearings at the Atlanta Immigration Court, Immigration Judges (IJs) appear via teleconference. These proceedings lack any semblance to due process. Rather, through assembly-line adjudication, IJs hear several dozens of cases within the span of a few hours. On court days, I witnessed about twenty men get shuffled into a small conference room to speak with the IJ in front of a small camera. The IJ only spends a few minutes on each case, and then the next twenty men get shuffled into the same room. While IJs may spend a bit more time with detainees during their bond or merits hearings, the time spent is often inadequate, frequently leading to unjust results.

Even with the tireless efforts of the Staff Attorneys and volunteers at SIFI, there are simply too few attorneys to help every detainee at the Folkston ICE Processing Center, which houses almost 900 immigrants at any given time, leaving hundreds stranded to navigate the confusing waters of immigration court alone.

During initial screenings, I encountered numerous individuals who filled out their asylum applications on their own. These folks try their best using the internet in the library to translate the application into their native language, translate their answers into English, and then hand in their I-589s to the IJ. But as any practitioner will tell you, so much more goes into an asylum application than the Form I-589. While these asylum seekers are smart and resourceful, it is nearly impossible for one to successfully pursue one’s own asylum claim. To make matters worse, if these asylum-seekers do not obtain release from detention ahead of their merits hearing where an IJ will adjudicate their asylum claim, they will be left to argue their claims in the Atlanta Immigration Court, where 95%-98% of all asylum claims are denied. For those detained and/or unrepresented, that number is nearly 100%.

Despite the Attorney General’s most recent comments that lawyers are not following the letter of the law when advocating on behalf of asylum-seekers, it is clear that it is the IJs, whom are tasked with fairly applying the law, and DHS officials, tasked with enforcing the law, are the ones seeking to circumvent the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Throughout the Trump era, immigration attorneys have faithfully upheld asylum law and have had to hold the government accountable in its failure to apply the law fairly. Good lawyers, using all of their talents and skill, work every day to vindicate the rights of their clients pursuant to the INA, contrary to Sessions’ assertions.

But more importantly, asylum-seekers have suffered from serious human rights abuses and merit protection under our laws. Their cases are not denied because they are not bona fide. Their cases are not denied because they do not qualify as refugees under the INA. Indeed, most of these asylum-seekers were found to possess a credible fear of return upon their initial apprehension. Through a combination of lack of access to counsel, unfair and uneven adjudication by IJs, and impermissible interference by the Attorney General, credible and bona fide cases are frequently denied.

We’ve previously blogged about the due process concerns in immigration courts under Sessions’ tenure. Instead, I want to highlight the stories of some of the asylum-seekers I met in Folkston. If these individuals do not obtain counsel for the bond or parole proceedings, and/or if they are denied release, they will be forced to adjudicate their claims in the Atlanta Immigration Court where they will almost certainly be ordered removed. It is important that we understand who it is that we’re actually deporting. Through sharing their stories, I want to demonstrate to others just how unfair our asylum system is. Asylum was meant to protect these people. Instead, we treat them as criminals by detaining them, do not provide them with adequate access to legal representation, and summarily remove them from the United States. Below are their stories:

Twenty-Five Year Old From Honduras Who Had Been Sexually Assaulted on Account of His Sexual Orientation

At the end of my first day in Folkston, I was asked to inform an individual, Mr. J-, that SIFI would be representing him in his bond proceedings. He’s been in detention since March 2018 and cried when I told him that we were going to try and get him out on bond.

Mr. J- looks like he’s about sixteen, and maybe weighs about 100 pounds. Back home in Honduras, he was frequently ridiculed because of his sexual orientation. Because he is rather small, this ridicule often turned into physical assault by other members of his community, including the police. One day when Mr. J- was returning from the store, he was stopped by five men from his neighborhood who started berating him on account of his sexual orientation. These men proceeded to sexually assault him, one by one, until he passed out. These men warned Mr. J- not to go to the police, or else they would find him and kill him. Mr. J- knew that the police would not help him even if he did report the incident. These men later tracked down Mr. J-’s cellphone number, and continued to harass and threaten him. Fearing for his life, Mr. J- fled to the United States.

Mr. J-’s asylum claim is textbook and ought to be readily granted. However, given Sessions’ recent unilateral change in asylum law based on private acts of violence, Mr. J- will have to fight an uphill battle to ultimately prevail. See Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018). If released on bond, Mr. J- plans to move in with his uncle, a US citizen, who resides in Florida. Mr. J-’s case will then be transferred to the immigration court in Miami. Although the Immigration Court in Miami similarly has high denial rates, where nearly 90% of all asylum claims are ultimately denied, Mr. J- will at least have a better chance of prevailing there than he would in Atlanta.

Indigenous Mayan from Guatemala Who Was Targeted on Account of His Success as a Businessman

During my second day, I met with an indigenous Mayan from Guatemala, Mr. S-. He holds a Master’s degree in Education, owned a restaurant back home, and was the minister at his local church. He had previously worked in agriculture pursuant to an H-2B visa in Iowa, and then returned to Guatemala when the visa expired to open his business.

He fled Guatemala earlier this year on account of his membership in a particular social group. One night after closing his restaurant, he was thrown off his motorcycle by several men who believes were part of a local gang. They beat him and threatened to kill him and his family if he did not give them a large sum of money. They specifically targeted Mr. S- because he was a successful businessman. They warned him not to go to the police or else they would find out and kill him. The client knew that the police would not protect him from this harm on account of his ethnic background as an indigenous Mayan. The day of the extortionists’ deadline to pay, Mr. S- didn’t have the money to pay them off, and was forced to flee or face a certain death.

Mr. S- has been in immigration detention since March. The day I met with him at the end of August was the first time he had been able to speak to an attorney.

Mr. S-’s prospects for success are uncertain. Even prior to the recent decision in Matter of A-B-, asylum claims based on the particular social group of “wealthy businessmen” were seldom granted. See, e.g., Lopez v. Sessions, 859 F.3d 464 (7th Cir. 2017); Dominguez-Pulido v. Lynch, 821 F.3d 837, 845 (7th Cir. 2016) (“wealth, standing alone, is not an immutable characteristic of a cognizable social group”); but see, Tapiero de Orejuela v. Gonzales, 423 F.3d 666 (7th Cir. 2005) (confirming that although wealth standing alone is not an immutable characteristic, the Respondent’s combined attributes of wealth, education status, and cattle rancher, satisfied the particular social group requirements). However, if Mr. S- can show that he was also targeted on account of his indigenous Mayan ancestry, he can perhaps also raise an asylum claim based on his ethnicity. The combination of his particular social group and ethnicity may be enough to entitle him to relief. See, e.g., Ordonez-Quino v. Holder, 760 F.3d 80, 90 (1st Cir. 2014) (Respondent demonstrated that his “Mayan Quiché identity was ‘at least one central reason’ why he” was persecuted).

As business immigration attorneys may also point out, if Mr. S- can somehow locate an employer in the US to sponsor him, he may be eligible for employment-based relief based on his Master’s degree, prior experience working in agriculture, and/or his business acumen on account of his successful restaurant management. Especially if Mr. S- is not released on bond and forced to adjudicate his claims in the Atlanta Immigration Court where asylum denial rates are high, his future attorney may also want to explore these unorthodox strategies.

Indigenous Mam-Speaking Guatemalan Persecuted on Account of His Race, Religion, and Particular Social Group

My third day, I met with Mr. G-, an indigenous Mam from Guatemala. Mr. G- is an incredibly devout Evangelical Christian and one of the purest souls I have ever met. He has resisted recruitment by rival gangs in his town and has been severely beaten because of his resistance. He says his belief in God and being a good person is why he has resisted recruitment. He did not want to be responsible for others’ suffering. The local gangs constantly assaulted Mr. G- due to his Mam heritage, his religion, and his resistance of them. He fled to the US to escape this persecution.

Mr. G- only speaks Mam, an ancient Mayan dialect. He does not speak Spanish. Because of this, he was unable to communicate with immigration officials about his credible fear of return to his country upon his initial arrival in November 2017. Fortunately, the USCIS asylum officer deferred Mr. G-’s credible fear interview until they could locate a Mam translator. However, one was never located, and he has been in immigration detention ever since.

August 29, 2018, nine months into his detention, was the first time he was able to speak to an attorney through an interpreter that spoke his language. Mr. G- was so out of the loop with what was going on, that he did not even know what the word “asylum” meant. For nine months, Mr. G- had to wait to find out what was going on and why he was in detention. My colleague, Jessica, and I, spoke with him for almost three hours. We could not provide him with satisfactory answers about whether SIFI would be able to take his case, and when or if he would be let out of detention. Given recent changes in the law, we couldn’t tell him if his asylum claim would ultimately prevail.

Mr. G- firmly stated that he will be killed if he was forced to go back to Guatemala. He said that if his asylum claim is denied, he will have to put his faith in God to protect him from what is a certain death. He said God is all he has.

Even without answers, this client thanked us until he was blue in the face. He said he did not have any money to pay us but wanted us to know how grateful he was for our help and that he would pray for us. Despite the fact that his life was hanging in the balance, he was more concerned about our time and expense helping him. He went on and on for several minutes about his gratitude. It was difficult for us to hold back tears.

Mr. G- is the reason asylum exists, but under our current framework, he will almost certainly be deported, especially if he cannot locate an attorney. Mr. G- has an arguable claim under Ordonez-Quino v. Holder, on account of his Mam heritage, and an arguable claim on account of his Evangelical Christianity, given that Mr. G-’s persecution was compounded by his visible Mam ethnicity and vocal Evangelical beliefs. His resistance to gang participation will be difficult to overcome, though, as the case law on the subject is primarily negative. See, e.g., Bueso-Avila v. Holder, 663 F.3d 934 (7th Cir. 2011) (finding insufficient evidence that MS-13 targeted Petitioner on account of his Christian beliefs, finding instead that the evidence supported the conclusion that the threats were based on his refusal to join the gang, which is not a protected ground). Mr. G-’s low prospects of success are particularly heart-wrenching. When we as a country fail to protect those seeking refuge from persecution, especially those fleeing religious persecution, we destroy the very ideals upon which this country was founded.

[Update: 9/10/2018 at 3:00PM: Shortly after posting this blog, the author received word that Mr. G- had been ordered removed. Despite the fact that his hearing was conducted entirely in Spanish and he has arguable claims to relief, Mr. G- has decided not to appeal his removal order and instead return to Guatemala. Prolonged detention has taken a serious toll on Mr. G-‘s physical and mental health.]

Twenty-Year Old Political Activist From Honduras, Assaulted by Military Police on Account of His Political Opinion

I also assisted in the drafting of a bond motion for a 20 year-old political activist from Honduras, Mr. O-, who had been severely beaten by the military police on account of his political opinion and activism.

Mr. O- was a prominent and vocal member of an opposition political group in Honduras. During the November 2017 Honduran presidential elections, Mr. O- assisted members of his community to travel to the polling stations. When election officials closed the polls too early, Mr. O- reached out to military police patrolling the area to demand that they re-open the polling stations so Hondurans could rightfully cast their votes. The military police became angry with Mr. O-’s insistence and began to beat him by stomping and kicking him, leaving him severely wounded. Mr. O- reported the incident to the police, but was told there was nothing they could do.

A few weeks later, Mr. O- was specifically targeted again by the military police when he was on his way home from a political meeting. The police pulled him from his car and began to beat him, accusing him of being a rioter. He was told to leave the country or else he would be killed. He was also warned that if he went to the national police, that he would be killed. Fearing for his life, Mr. O- fled to the US in April 2018 and has been in detention ever since.

SIFI was able to take on his bond case in August, and by the end of my trip, the SIFI team had submitted his request for bond. Since Mr. O-’s asylum claim is particularly strong, and because he has family in the US, it is highly likely that his bond will be granted. From there, we can only hope that he encounters an IJ that appropriately follows the law and will grant him asylum.

(The author thanks Jessica Greenberg and Deirdre Stradone for their constant mentorship as well as providing the author the opportunity to go to Folkston. The author also thanks Lucia della Paolera for her advocacy, passion, and critical interpretation assistance. Finally, the author expresses the utmost gratitude to the team at SIFI, who work day in and day out to provide excellent representation to the detained migrants and asylum-seekers detained at Folkston ICE Processing Center.)

Photos from my trip to Folkston, GA:

The Folkston ICE Processing Center.

Downtown Folkston, GA.

 

Volunteers from Left to Right: Sophia Genovese (author), Deirdre Stradone (Staff Attorney at African Services Committee), Jessica Greenberg (Staff Attorney at ASC/ICLC), and Lucia della Paolera (volunteer interpreter).

Suspension of Premium Processing: Another Attack On the H-1B Program

The Trump administration has restricted the H-1B program by making it harder for employers to obtain an approval. It has done this without changing the law through Congress or amending any rule.  Routine H-1B visa petitions that were previously approvable are now subject to difficult to overcome Requests for Evidence. Even after valiantly submitting evidence to overcome an RFE, the H-B petition is more susceptible to being denied.  The USCIS has also announced that it will initiate removal proceedings in case an extension request is denied and the underlying H-1B status previously expired, further harassing H-1B workers who have remained lawfully in the United States until the point their H-1B request is denied under needless heightened scrutiny.  It is thus no surprise that businesses are loudly complaining on Labor Day that they are hurting because they are struggling to fill the jobs they need with foreign workers.

To rub further salt in the wound, USICS announced on August 28, 2018, that it was  extending the previously announced temporary suspension of premium processing for cap-subject H-1B petitions and, beginning Sept. 11, 2018, will be expanding this temporary suspension to include certain additional H-1B petitions. These suspensions are expected to last until Feb. 19, 2019. Premium processing service provides expedited processing for a specific list of employment-based immigrant and nonimmigrant petitions upon paying an additional fee. This list has always included the H-1B petition.

The expanded temporary suspension applies to all H-1B petitions filed at the Vermont and California Service Centers (except for filings by certain cap exempt employers).

The previously announced suspension of premium processing for fiscal year 2019 cap-subject H-1B petitions was originally slated to last until Sept. 10, 2018, but that suspension is being extended through an estimated date of Feb. 19, 2019.

The USCIS has specifically indicated that the suspension does not apply to:

  1. Cap-exempt petitions that are filed exclusively at the California Service Center because the employer is cap exempt or because the beneficiary will be employed at a qualifying cap exempt institution, entity, or organization; or
  2. Those petitions filed exclusively at the Nebraska Service Center by an employer requesting a “Continuation of previously approved employment without change with the same employer” (Box b. on Part 2, Question 2, Page 2 of the current Form I-129) with a concurrent request to:
    1. Notify the office in Part 4 so each beneficiary can obtain a visa or be admitted. (Box on Part 2, Question 4, Page 2 of the current Form I-129); or
    2. Extend the stay of each beneficiary because the beneficiary now holds this status. (Box c. on Part 2, Question 4, Page 2 of the current Form I-129).

The reasoning behind the extension and expansion of the suspension of premium processing, according to the USCIS, is to help it to reduce overall H-1B processing times by allowing it to:

  • Process long-pending petitions, which we have been unable to process due to the high volume of incoming petitions and premium processing requests over the past few months;
  • Be responsive to petitions with time-sensitive start dates; and
  • Prioritize adjudication of H-1B extension of status cases that are nearing the 240-day mark.

This may be the official position of USCIS, but it is no coincidence that  continuing the suspension as well as expanding it nicely fits into the administration’s objective to further restrict the H-1B visa program pursuant to “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order No. 13788. BAHA has been deployed as a justification to restrict legal immigration for the purpose of protecting American workers. However, this rationale makes no sense in a full employment economy when businesses are hurting because they cannot hire foreign workers. Therefore, the only other possible rationale to restrict legal immigration is to advance white nationalism, which is what Trump promised and continues to promise to his base of supporters.

The extension of the previously suspended premium processing for H-1B cap cases means that employers who were expecting foreign nationals to start their jobs on October 1, 2018 may no longer be able to do so if the H-1B petition is not approved. This renders the H-1B visa program virtually useless. Employers had to offer the jobs prior to April 1, and then file H-1B petitions on behalf of the foreign national within the first five days of April 2018 to be considered in the H-1B visa lottery. Since USCIS received 190,098 H-1B cases earlier this year, which exceeded the maximum 85,000 H-1B visas that can be issued, more applications got rejected rather than accepted under the H-1B lottery this year. Those H-1B petitions that got selected are susceptible to receiving an RFE and a possible denial under the new heightened scrutiny policy.  Moreover,  there are many cases that have not been adjudicated since they were filed in early April 2018, and without premium processing, employers will likely not be able to hire the H-1B worker on October 1, 2018 even though the job offer was made more than six months ago and the petition is potentially approvable. Students who are working for the employer under F-1 Cap Gap Optional Practical Training will have to stop on October 1, 2018 unless the change of status request from F-1 to H-1B is approved on or before that date.

The expansion of the suspension of premium processing means that those H-1B visa holders who are changing employers will not be able to get the assurance of an approval when they make the switch. Although an H-1B worker can port to a new job without waiting for the approval, so long as the employment starts after the new employer has filed the H-1B petition and request for extension of status, both employers and H-1B workers would like the security of an approval before they start their new jobs. The expansion of the suspension of premium processing will hinder mobility of H-1B workers. This in turn will hinder competitiveness and will also inhibit skilled H-1B workers from improving career prospects and getting better compensation, resulting in an adverse impact on US competitiveness in the long run. The suspension of premium processing further feeds into the USCIS’s new removal policy. If an H-1B worker takes a chance to port to a new employer, and if that petition, along with the extension of status request, is subsequently denied after several months of delay due to lack of premium processing, this person could be at risk of receiving a Notice to Appear and will be placed in removal proceedings.

Furthermore, an employer is required to request an amendment of the H-1B petition if the worker is being sent to a new worksite that was not contemplated in the original H-1B petition. The suspension of premium processing for amending an H-1B petition also creates further uncertainty as to the fate of the amendment request that may be challenged and denied under the heightened scrutiny being given to such petitions under the Trump administration.

The only saving grace is that premium processing has not been suspended for extension requests with the same employer. Still, caution is advised since premium processing is only allowed if  box 2.b in Part 2 relating to “Continuation of previously approved employment without change with the same employer ” is checked. If box 2.c is checked – “Change in previously approved employment” – then premium processing will not be allowed. The instructions to Form I-129 state that box 2.c should be checked when there is a non-material change in the employment such as a change in job title but without a material change in duties. There are bound to be non-material changes to the job duties, including salary increases, at the time of filing any H-1B extension request.  Till now, USCIS has not paid close attention to whether box 2.b or 2.c is checked, since a non-material change in the job could still be considered  a “[c]ontinuation of previously approved employment.” Otherwise, if the change was material, then an amendment must have been filed prior to the expiration of the H-1B validity period.  However, as a commentator to this blog has astutely suggested,  one can now expect the Nebraska Service Center to pay closer attention to these meaningless distinctions in order to play “gotcha” and deny premium processing if 2.b rather than 2.c was checked. It is hoped that the NSC will consider non-material changes as a continuation of previously approved employment, but one should not bank on reason these days when the mindset of the Trump administration is to restrict immigration!    Cap exempt employers can also avail of premium processing, but they are few in comparison to the overall population of employers who file H-1B petitions. Premium processing for other visa categories has not been suspended. While premium processing is suspended, petitioners may submit a request to expedite an H-1B petition if they meet the criteria on the Expedite Criteria webpage. However, USCIS very grudgingly accepts expedited requests.

The USCIS has been suspending premium processing with greater frequency in recent times. It did so last on April 3, 2017 and resumed it again on September 18, 2017. USCIS again suspended premium processing for H-1B cap cases on April 2, 2018, and has now extended the suspension to February 11,  2019, in addition to expanding the suspension to other types of H-1B filings. Premium processing generates fees, which can result in more transformation through efficiency, and so by suspending premium processing USCIS is killing the goose that lays the golden egg. The USCIS wants to process other cases more quickly, but it would make more sense to accept premium processing so that it can add more staff to process all cases as efficiently as possible. Ironically, USICS has also announced an increase in the premium processing fee from $1225 to $1410. The justification for this increase is that it “represents the percentage change in inflation since the fee was last increased in 2010 based on the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers.” Thus, this increase is to keep up with inflation rather than generate revenues, and USCIS will still lose revenues as a result of the suspension of premium processing for many types of H-1B filings.

If the USCIS excessively delays the adjudication of H-1B visa petitions due to lack of premium processing, one possible solution is to file mandamus actions to compel the USCIS to make a decision. If the administration is faced with thousands of such actions, it will realize that it is less costly to process cases quickly, and even restore premium processing completely, rather than get bogged down in a deluge of mandamus actions against it.