Extreme Absurdity: A Response to the “Extreme Vetting” Questions Proposed By Potential DHS Secretary Kris Kobach

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, rumored to be a potential Secretary of Homeland Security in a Donald Trump Administration, met with Mr. Trump last Sunday, apparently to discuss some of his plans for the Department.  During a media photo opportunity, Mr. Kobach held a binder and stack of papers in such a way that a page was left partially visible and allowed an Associated Press photographer to capture some of the “Department of Homeland Security Kobach Strategic Plan for First 365 Days.”  Although there are many horrifying things about that plan, some of which this author may address further in future blogs, one aspect of Kobach’s plan that particularly caught my attention was the proposal to “Add extreme vetting questions for high-risk aliens: question them regarding support for Sharia law, jihad, equality of men and women, the United States Constitution.”  This blog provides an initial reaction to that proposal.

It appears that by “high-risk aliens”, Kobach was likely referring predominantly to aliens from countries with a large Muslim population, or perhaps just Muslims themselves.  In the immediately prior item of his outline, Kobach describes the NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) program he wants to “update and reintroduce” as “track[ing]” “all aliens from high-risk areas.”  In its original form, NSEERS applied to men over the age of 25 from 25 countries, all but one of which was a Muslim-majority country.  (Specifically, NSEERS included nonimmigrants from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and the one exception, North Korea.)  Thus, Kobach evidently associates “high-risk areas” predominantly with Muslim countries.  It is not entirely clear whether by “high-risk aliens” he means to describe only those from the so-called “high-risk areas”, or whether he would cast a broader net.

Of the four questions that Kobach proposes to ask the “high-risk aliens”, the question about “support for  . . . the United States Constitution” is comparatively unobjectionable, other than with respect to the discriminatory context in which he apparently proposes to ask it.  Applicants for naturalization as U.S. citizens are already required by law to be “attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States,” INA 316(a).  The Form N-400 Application for Naturalization already asks applicants, “Do you support the Constitution and form of government of the United States?”  One might perhaps take issue with Kobach’s apparent proposal to expand use of this question outside the naturalization context in which it was statutorily authorized, but it is the other three proposed questions that are truly problematic.

To ask Muslim immigrants about their “support for Sharia law” is rather like asking Jewish immigrants about their “support for Halacha”, or Catholic immigrants about their “support for canon law”, or other Christian immigrants about their “support for Biblical principles”.  While the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church has the advantage from an American perspective of having an English common name, many Americans may not realize that Sharia is merely an Arabic word for traditional Muslim religious law, just as Halacha – another word with which many Americans may not be familiar – is merely a Hebrew word for traditional Jewish religious law.  Different Muslims will have different interpretations of what “Sharia law” has to say about a particular subject, just as different Jews will have different interpretations of what “Halacha” has to say about a particular subject.  (Some subgroups of Muslims may entirely dispute the applicability of Sharia as historically understood, just as Reform Judaism differentiates between its approach to one’s relationship with God and the approach suggested by Halacha.)  Some may cite Sharia to justify horrific actions, but then again Yigal Amir claimed that his assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was justified by Jewish religious law; in neither case is it appropriate to charge all followers of the religion or some version of its laws with support for the horrific actions in question.   To ask about “support for Sharia law” sheds only very limited light on what the person being asked actually believes, even if we indulge the questionable assumption that anyone’s religious beliefs are the proper concern of the U.S. government.  Perhaps it would be a different story if Kobach proposed to ask a more nuanced question about whether those seeking to come to the United States believed that any and all religious law should be subordinate to democratically enacted civil law, but it does not appear that this is what he has in mind.

Kobach’s proposed question about “jihad” suffers from a somewhat similar defect.  The word “jihad” literally means “struggle” or “effort”, and the BBC has said that “Many modern writers claim that the main meaning of Jihad is the internal spiritual struggle”, although there is also support for interpreting the word to mean a military struggle.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary recognizes multiple meanings of the word, ranging from “a holy war waged on behalf of Islam” to “a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline” to “a crusade for a principle or belief”.  We do not assume that supporters of Campus Crusade for Christ will use violence in their struggle to spread Christianity, nor do we ask Christian prospective immigrants their opinion of the medieval Crusades.  If Kobach had proposed to ask a more general question about support for the use of violence, or even the use of violence motivated by perceived religious conflict, that would be a different story, but his proposed inquiry only covers this single word.  Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Brevik believed that he was at war with Muslims.  Had we known this, does Kobach believe we should not have excluded Brevik if he had applied to come to the United States, but should have excluded any Muslim victims of his who supported internal spiritual struggle?

Even Kobach’s proposed question about “equality of men and women”, innocuous though it may seem and tied to an important American civic value though it may be, has a problematic dimension in the context of questioning that would apparently be directed towards religious beliefs.  A number of religions that Kobach presumably does not wish to target do not provide for strict equality of men and women, in the sense of the rights of men and women in a specifically religious context.  Less than a month ago, Pope Francis ruled out the possibility of a woman ever serving as a Catholic priestFemale rabbis are extremely rare in Orthodox Judaism, with one first taking the title just this year, and with one main U.S. Orthodox rabbinical group having purported to ban the practice roughly a year ago, although female rabbis have been common in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements of American Judaism over the past several decades.  In many Orthodox Jewish interpretations of Halacha, ten men, not women, are required to make up a “minyan”, or quorum to say certain prayers, although the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly in the Conservative Movement has ruled that women can count towards a minyan.  Some Christians believe that wives should submit to their husbands.  Could followers of those beliefs truthfully say, under penalty of perjury, that they supported full equality of men and women?  While I vehemently disagree with those who would deny women full religious equality, and I personally favor a more gender-egalitarian approach, it seems to me that it would represent a major break with our own civic traditions for the U.S. government to exclude immigrants who hold the less egalitarian Christian or Orthodox Jewish beliefs discussed above—or the Muslim analogue of those beliefs.

Kris Kobach’s proposed “extreme vetting” questions would not be the first time the U.S. government has utilized a problematically worded question against a minority group.  In the Japanese-American internment camps of the Second World War era, even U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were asked whether they would “forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”  Many of these citizens “resented being asked to renounce loyalty to the Emperor of Japan when they had never held a loyalty to the Emperor.”  (The question might be compared in this respect to the old example of an unfair yes-or-no question, “have you stopped beating your wife?”)

The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II has been widely recognized as a horrible mistake, and survivors of the camps were awarded restitution in 1988 as well as given a formal apology by the U.S. government.  However, one prominent supporter of Donald Trump recently made news by suggesting that the internment of Japanese-Americans was a “precedent” for a registry of Muslims.  That supporter had, in fact, raised the analogy in support of Mr. Kobach’s proposal to reinstate NSEERS, which is related to his proposed “extreme vetting” questions as discussed above.  The parallels are extremely troubling.  While it may seem that “extreme vetting” questions regarding aspects of religious belief are some distance away from actual internment of a minority group, it is important, as the Supreme Court said in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette of a different attempt to enforce government-sponsored doctrine (regarding a mandatory flag salute), that we “avoid those ends by avoiding those beginnings.”  This is not a road down which the United States should travel.

Expansion of the Provisional Waiver: Good News, But Could Be Better

On July 29, 2016, USCIS published in the Federal Register the final version of a previously-proposed rule expanding the provisional waiver program.  The new rule, Expansion of Provisional Unlawful Presence Waivers of Inadmissibility, 81 Fed. Reg. 50,244, was effective August 29, 2016, so the newly expanded program is now available.

The provisional waiver program, which first began in 2013 as discussed in a previous post by this author, pertains to certain applicants for an immigrant visa who will be inadmissible under INA §212(a)(9)(B) for three or ten years following their departure from the United States due to their previous unlawful presence in the United States of more than 180 days or at least one year—who face the so-called three-year bar or ten-year bar.  These applicants, under the provisional waiver program, can use Form I-601A to apply for and (provisionally) receive a waiver of inadmissibility under INA §212(a)(9)(B)(v), based on a showing of extreme hardship to a qualifying relative, before departing the United States to apply for an immigrant visa.  This is in contrast to the usual system of applying for a waiver on Form I-601, which in the immigrant-visa context is only possible after already leaving the United States and having one’s immigrant visa interview.

The most notable change effected by the new provisional waiver rule is a significant expansion of the set of those eligible to use the provisional waiver process.  Previously, the provisional waiver was only available to beneficiaries of a visa petition filed by an immediate relative, that is, a petition filed by a U.S. citizen spouse, son or daughter over age 21, or parent in the case of a beneficiary under 21.  It was also only available if the qualifying relative for the §212(a)(9)(B)(v) waiver was a U.S. citizen, even though the statute allows a §212(a)(9)(B)(v) waiver to be granted based on a showing of extreme hardship to a spouse or parent who is either a U.S. citizen or a Lawful Permanent Resident.

Under the new rule, on the other hand, the provisional waiver can be sought be anyone with a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident spouse or parent to whom extreme hardship is sought to be shown, and this is so independent of the basis that qualifies the applicant to apply for an immigrant visa in the first place.  For applicants who meet the other requirements for a provisional waiver, the new rule only requires that the applicant

Has a case pending with the Department of State, based on:

(A) An approved immigrant visa petition, for which the Department of State immigrant visa processing fee has been paid; or

(B) Selection by the Department of State to participate in the Diversity Visa Program under section 203(c) of the Act for the fiscal year for which the alien registered.

8 C.F.R. §212.7(e)(3)(iv) (2016).  It no longer matters whether the petition is an immediate-relative petition, a family-based preference petition, or an employment-based preference petition, and even winners of the diversity-visa lottery can make use of the provisional waiver program if they have a qualifying relative.

While the main text of the new rule arguably does not make clear whether this expansion includes derivative beneficiaries of preference petitions (who have a case based on accompanying or following-to-join a petition beneficiary rather than based on their own petition), several clues in the preamble to the rule strongly imply that it does.  The preamble to the new rule describes the proposed rule as having “proposed to expand the class of individuals who may be eligible for provisional waivers beyond certain immediate relatives of U.S. citizens to all statutorily eligible individuals regardless of their immigrant visa classification.”  81 Fed. Reg. at 50,245.  The preamble also describes “inclusion of derivative spouses and children” as a topic on which DHS received no comments.  Id. at 50,248.  Finally, and most clearly, the preamble says of a redesign of the Form I-601A that “DHS agrees with the need to collect additional information, as suggested by the commenters, in light of this final rule’s extension of eligibility for the provisional waiver to spouses and children who accompany or follow to join principal immigrants.”  Id. at 50,272.  Thus, it strongly appears that the rule’s reference to having a “case pending with the Department of State, based on . . . An approved immigrant visa petition,” 8 C.F.R. §212.7(e)(3)(iv)(A), is not restricted to instances in which the case pending with the Department of State is based on an approved immigrant visa petition for the applicant him- or herself.  The pending case may, rather, be based on an approved immigrant visa petition for the applicant’s spouse or parent, as well.  (Children will relatively rarely need to make use of a provisional waiver, since they are exempt from accruing unlawful presence for §212(a)(9)(B) purposes until age 18 pursuant to INA §212(a)(9)(B)(iii)(I), but there will be some cases of unmarried derivative beneficiaries over the age of 18-and-a-half whose actual age or adjusted age under the Child Status Protection Act is under 21 and who therefore still qualify as children for purposes of accompanying or following-to-join their parent.)

Another expansion of the program relates to applicants who might conceivably face some other ground of inadmissibility.  The “reason to believe” standard regarding other potential grounds of inadmissibility, which had caused much confusion in the past, has been eliminated. 81 Fed. Reg. at 50,253-50,254, 50,262.  DHS will no longer deny a provisional waiver based on mere “reason to believe” that some other ground of inadmissibility besides INA §212(a)(9)(B) might apply.  However, 8 C.F.R. §212.7(e)(14)(i) will continue to provide that if some other ground of inadmissibility is found by DOS to exist at the time of the visa interview, the provisional waiver will automatically be revoked, and the applicant will need to seek a regular waiver of the unlawful-presence inadmissibility along a waiver of the other ground of inadmissibility (if a waiver of the other ground of inadmissibility is even available).  Thus, it will be crucial for applicants and their attorneys to ensure as best they can, before a provisional waiver applicant departs the United States for a visa interview, that no other grounds of inadmissibility will be found to exist.

Another expansion of the program relates to removal orders.  The bar on applications for provisional waiver by individuals in active removal proceedings that have not been administratively closed remains, but the bar on applications for those facing final removal, deportation, or exclusion orders has been modified.  81 Fed Reg. at 50,262.  Pursuant to new 8 C.F.R. §212.7(e)(4)(iv), such individuals with a final order can seek a provisional waiver if they have previously obtained permission to reapply for admission through an approved Form I-212 under 8 C.F.R. §212.2(j).  They cannot file the I-601A and I-212 concurrently, as DHS believes this would introduce procedural complications, related principally to the appealability of a denied I-212, that would undermine the efficiency gains sought from the provisional waiver.  Rather, individuals subject to a final order can only proceed with the I-601A application for provisional waiver after the Form I-212 has already been approved.  81 Fed. Reg. at 50,256, 50,259, 50,262.

Individuals subject to a voluntary departure period, however, still cannot apply for a provisional waiver while that voluntary departure period is in effect.  81 Fed Reg. at 50,256-50,257.  These individuals are considered by DHS as analogous to those still in removal proceedings, and then become ineligible at the conclusion of their voluntary departure period based on the alternative removal order which has taken effect.  However, it appears that one who overstays a voluntary departure period (and thus activates the alternative removal order) could theoretically apply for advance permission to reapply for admission under 8 C.F.R. §212.2(j), and then seek a provisional waiver if advance permission to reapply were granted—although there would be a significant risk that either or both of these applications would be denied in the exercise of discretion.  Strictly speaking, neither permission to reapply under INA §212(a)(9)(A)(iii) nor a waiver of inadmissibility under INA §212(a)(9)(B)(v) are covered by the ten-year bar on many discretionary benefits that results pursuant to INA §240B(d)(1)(B) when one fails to timely depart in compliance with a voluntary departure order, but it is unlikely that DHS would look favorably upon an overstay of voluntary departure followed soon thereafter by such applications.

The new rule also clarifies the circumstances under which reinstatement of a removal order will prevent application for a provisional waiver.  Mere eligibility for reinstatement is not sufficient.  Rather, a provisional waiver will be barred only if “CBP or ICE, after service of notice under 8 CFR 241.8, has reinstated a prior order of removal under section 241(a)(5) of the [INA], either before the filing of the provisional unlawful presence waiver application or while the provisional unlawful presence waiver application is pending.”  8 C.F.R. §212.7(e)(4)(v) (2016).  Of course, the fact that the bar extends to reinstatement while a provisional waiver application is pending does make it quite risky for one subject to reinstatement to file such an application.

Another way in which the new rule expands the pool of those eligible for a provisional waiver is by eliminating the previous prohibition on grants of provisional waivers to anyone for whom DOS had acted before January 2013 to schedule a visa interview.  81 Fed. Reg. at 50,254.  A pending immigrant visa case can qualify for a provisional waiver application regardless of when it commenced, so long as registration under the approved petition has not been terminated under INA 203(g).

DHS has not, however, expanded the provisional-waiver program in all of the ways that one might have hoped.  One notable omission is the refusal to expand the program to encompass other grounds of inadmissibility for which a waiver can be sought on Form I-601, such as inadmissibility due to past fraud under INA §212(a)(6)(C)(i) that can be waived under INA §212(i), or inadmissibility due to past smuggling under INA §212(a)(6)(E) that can be waived under INA §212(d)(11) when only one’s spouse, parent, son or daughter was smuggled.  No matter how sympathetic the case, a visa applicant who smuggled his or her own child across the border, or came to the United States years ago on a false passport, will not be eligible for a provisional waiver.  The provisional waiver remains available only to one who “Upon departure, would be inadmissible only under section 212(a)(9)(B)(i) of the Act at the time of the immigrant visa interview.”  8 C.F.R. §212.7(e)(3)(iii) (2016).

The preamble to the final rule explains DHS’s reasons for refusing this sort of expansion with the following cryptic language:

Expanding the provisional waiver process to other grounds of inadmissibility would introduce additional complexity and inefficiencies into the immigrant visa process, create potential backlogs, and likely delay and adversely affect the processing of immigrant visas by DOS. Furthermore, USCIS generally assesses waiver applications for inadmissibility due to fraud, misrepresentation, or criminal history through an in-person interview at a USCIS field office. Because DOS already conducts a thorough in-person interview as part of the immigrant visa process, DHS believes that this type of review would be unnecessarily duplicative of DOS’s efforts.

81 Fed Reg. at 50,253.  At least in cases where inadmissibility is conceded and is straightforwardly subject to waiver – say, where a past entry had been with a photo-substituted foreign passport, or where one’s own child had been smuggled into the United States – it is not clear why waiving such inadmissibility would necessarily be more complex or duplicative than waiving inadmissibility due to past unlawful presence.

The genius of the provisional waiver, in its original form and its expanded form, is that it helps ensure family unity and avoid the perverse scenario in which U.S. citizens and LPRs must be separated from their relatives for an extended period of time and suffer the precise extreme hardship that an ultimately-granted waiver is designed to prevent.  This scenario is just as perverse when the inadmissibility being waived results from having smuggled one’s own spouse or child into the United States, or previously entered by fraud (but not in a provable way enabling adjustment of status as an immediate relative), as when it results from prior unlawful presence.

Unnecessary separation leading to extreme hardship could be reduced even further if consular officials of the Department of State, in connection with an approved provisional waiver, were willing to provide an indication of their views on any other potential grounds of inadmissibility before an applicant departed from the United States.  This is not consistent with current Department of State practice, but there seems no statutory bar to it if the governing regulations were amended appropriately.  Under the “pre-examination” procedure that was in place prior to the creation of adjustment of status, pursuant for example to 8 C.F.R. §142.9(b) (1943), consuls did provide written assurances regarding the sufficiency of an applicant’s documents, though a personal interview was still ultimately required.  The same sort of procedure could be put into place for provisional waivers: an applicant could submit a written record of conviction for a crime or written account of past actions thought to potentially constitute fraud or smuggling, and be advised in advance whether, if found to be credible, he or she would be denied a visa due to inadmissibility based on such a ground.  Any legal argument regarding the applicant’s potential inadmissibility on these bases could thus take place while the applicant was still in the United States, again avoiding the necessity of prolonged separation from qualifying relatives.

While the recent expansion of the provisional waiver is to be commended, including other waiveable grounds of inadmissibility, and allowing for definitive determinations regarding other grounds of inadmissibility before an applicant’s departure from the United States, would have made the program still better.  Perhaps these issues can be revisited in a future round of rulemaking.

Deconstructing the Myth of the Criminal Immigrant

Donald Trump began his presidential campaign last year by accusing Mexican immigrants who cross the border as being criminals and rapists, and ended with the same sentiment in his acceptance speech of the Republican nomination by thundering that “nearly 180,000 people with criminal records ordered deported from our country are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”

While every prior Republican nominee in recent times has spoken in glowing terms about immigrants being an asset to America, Trump emphasized only on the dark aspects, and hyped up fears of immigrants being a threat to the American people. This is despite the fact that studies have proved that newcomers are less likely to commit crimes than the native population.

Still, even if immigrants commit crimes in lesser proportion to native born Americans, as long as they have not become citizens, they pay a greater penalty than US citizens when they commit the same crime. While both may be punished under the criminal justice system, the immigrant after serving his or her sentence is likely to face deportation.  It would seem fair that once a person has been punished and reformed, there should be no further penalty. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the non-citizen. Even a long term legal immigrant with a green card can get deported from the United States after serving a sentence.  The sentence may be relatively minor or inconsequential under the criminal justice system, but can be consequential for the immigrant. For instance, an immigrant who is convicted of a misdemeanor theft but received a one year sentence that was suspended would still be considered to have been convicted of an aggravated felony. When an immigrant is convicted of an aggravated felony, there are fewer opportunities for defending oneself against removal proceedings,  and often times one is also not eligible for waivers.

So when Trump spoke about immigrants roaming free with criminal backgrounds, he sought to stereotype and dehumanizes all immigrants. Some of these immigrants may have committed minor crimes from years ago, such as driving without a license, and may be the subject of prosecutorial discretion because they have family members who are US citizens. A significant percentage of their so called crimes involve civil immigration violations and nonviolent offenses, and thus it was patently false to suggest that they “threaten peaceful citizens.” Even the U.S.  Supreme Court has recognized that a non-citizen with a removal order cannot be indefinitely detained. In Zadvydas v. Davis, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to indefinitely detain a non-citizen who has been ordered removed beyond a six month period.  Some persons in the group that Trump demonized may have orders of removal that are under judicial review, and ICE has decided  that it doesn’t make sense for them to be locked up indefinitely while the petition for review is pending. Another possibility is that in some cases the “criminal record” is a single nonviolent misdemeanor which does not render the person a removal priority. Trump might also have been counting people whom an IJ has ordered removed, but who have an appeal pending with the Board of Immigration Appeals, and who are out on bond.

When we as a nation accept immigrants, and America’s greatness is because it is a nation of immigrants, it is inevitable that a small group within the immigration population will commit crimes, both major and innocuous. A college student who is an immigrant may be convicted of possession of marijuana joint (outside Colorado of course), and when she travels and returns, she may be found inadmissible and put into removal proceedings. It would be unfair to demonize her by branding her as a “criminal alien” and being a threat to “peaceful citizens.” Immigrants should face the same penalty as a U.S. citizen when they are convicted of crimes. If the purpose of punishment is deterrence or reformation, and that is sufficient for the citizen, there is no need to subject the non-citizen immigrant to the additional draconian penalty of deportation, which can potentially result in the permanent banishment of that individual from America.

Finally, Trump in true demagogic fashion only focused on the anxieties and fears caused by immigrants. There was scant mention of their achievements and how they have benefited America in every sphere. Where was the sunny optimism about America being a welcoming country to people who can only benefit it?  Or America even being kind and forgiving – especially to the immigrant who may have committed a crime, but has long ties and family here, and has completely rehabilitated after serving his sentence?  If Trump may have been successfully in stoking fears in a few people, he also succeeded in galvanizing many more people to vote to throw him out so that America can continue to be this sunny, optimistic and welcoming country.




Some Preliminary Reactions to the Oral Argument in United States v. Texas

As most readers of this blog will likely be aware, the Supreme Court heard oral argument today in the case now captioned United States v. Texas, regarding the lawsuit brought by Texas and a number of other states to stop implementation of DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) and expanded DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).  The transcript of the argument is now available online, although the audiotape will not be available until later in the week.  There has been much media coverage of the argument, including by the always-insightful SCOTUSBlog, and a number of media organizations and commentators have suggested that the Court may divide 4 to 4, thus leaving the Fifth Circuit’s decision intact and preventing DAPA and expanded DACA from going into effect at this time.  While that is a possibility, however, there are also some reasons to be optimistic that it may not come to pass.

I do not wish to recap all of the voluminous coverage of the argument by the media and commentators, but will focus in this blog post primarily on one or two things that I have not seen highlighted by other commentators. However, there is one observation about the argument, not original to me, which does seem worth passing along, and which falls under the heading of reasons for optimism.  As Chris Geidner has pointed out in his review of the oral argument on Buzzfeed, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often seen as a swing vote in cases where the Court is closely divided, raised the possibility that the more appropriate way for Texas to have proceeded would have been to challenge the application of the regulation granting employment authorization to deferred action beneficiaries, 8 C.F.R. §274a.12(c)(14), under the Administrative Procedure Act.  Justice Sotomayor discussed with Solicitor General Verrilli on page 31 of the transcript the possibility that, if Texas had wanted to attack the 1986 regulation that allows employment authorization under many circumstances including deferred action, they could have petitioned the agency for rulemaking under section 553(c) of the Administrative Procedure Act.  If that failed, they could then have gone to court.  Instead, Texas went directly into court without first raising its concerns with the agency—a procedural shortcut which a majority of the Court may not be willing to tolerate.  This is separate from the constitutional concern, also discussed at length during the argument, that Texas may not have standing to attack DAPA where its asserted injury relates to its own decision to subsidize the issuance of driver’s licenses to certain classes of individuals.

Another notable portion of the oral argument was the discussion of the outsized importance that the plaintiff States have attached to the brief mention in the DAPA memorandum of “lawful presence”. As Marty Lederman explained in a post on the Balkinization blog prior to the oral argument, the significance of “lawful presence” in this context relates primarily to eligibility for certain Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as to the tolling of unlawful presence for purposes of potential future inadmissibility under 8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(9)(B).  Neither of these things, however, has anything to do with the injury that Texas alleges.  Nor are they of particularly great significance in the context of DAPA as a whole.  Professor Lederman had described the lawful-presence argument as “the smallest of tails wagging a very large dog”, a phrase that Solicitor General Verrilli expanded upon (or should I say contracted upon?) on page 32 of the oral argument transcript by noting that the lawful-presence issue was “the tail on the dog and the flea on the tail of the dog.”  (He also returned to the basic “tail of the dog” formulation on page 88, in his rebuttal.)  If necessary, he offered, the Court could simply take a “red pencil” and excise the offending phrase from the memo, and this would be “totally fine” with the government.

Just as the issue of “lawful presence” lacks a connection to the injury Texas alleges, it was also discussed at the oral argument how even the employment authorization that is a much more important component of DAPA as it would operate in practice, and which seems to be what Texas is in large part challenging, does not really relate to Texas’s alleged injury. As Solicitor General Verrilli and also Thomas Saenz, arguing for intervenor prospective DAPA beneficiaries, pointed out, Texas, under its current policy, gives driver’s licenses based on the granting of deferred action itself, rather than based upon employment authorization.  Even if the federal government restricted itself to deferring any removal action against the intended beneficiaries of DAPA – as Texas, in the person of its Solicitor General Scott Keller, seemed to concede on page 50 of the transcript that it would have the authority to do – and simply, as Justice Ginsburg suggested, gave out ID cards noting the low priority status of the beneficiaries, Texas would still, under its current policy, apparently have to give those beneficiaries subsidized driver’s licenses.  Thus, besides the other problems with Texas’s claim that it is harmed sufficiently by DAPA to have standing to challenge it, there is the problem of redressability.  A decision forbidding the federal government to give out employment authorization documents, or declare “lawful presence”, under DAPA, while still permitting it to defer removal actions against DAPA’s beneficiaries, would not actually solve the problem that Texas is claiming DAPA has caused.  It is, instead, merely a convenient hook for what is actually a political dispute.  Solicitor General Verrilli returned to this point in his rebuttal argument, noting that Texas had offered no response to it.

Another notable portion of the oral argument relating to employment authorization was the discussion of how, as Justice Alito asked on page 28 of the transcript, it is “possible to lawfully work in the United States without lawfully being in the United States?” As Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli attempted to explain, while this may seem peculiar, employment authorization based on a mere pending application for lawful status, such as an application for adjustment of status or cancellation of removal, is quite common.  Many, many people receive such authorization pursuant to the administrative authority recognized by 8 U.S.C. §1324a(h)(3), as discussed in my prior blog post Ignoring the Elephant in the Room: An Initial Reaction to Judge Hanen’s Decision Enjoining DAPA and Expanded DACA.  The suggestion that such authorization cannot exist would wreak havoc on our immigration system as we now know it.  As Solicitor General Verrilli pointed out on page 31 of the transcript, reading the §1324a(h)(3) authority as narrowly as suggested by the plaintiffs would eliminate well over a dozen of the current regulatory categories of employment authorization.  It would, to quote from Solicitor General Verrilli’s rebuttal argument at page 89, “completely and totally upend the administration of the immigration laws, and, frankly, it’s a reckless suggestion.”

Indeed, as I pointed out in a blog post several years ago, there are many circumstances under which even someone subject to a removal order can be lawfully granted work authorization.  Those whose asylum applications were denied in removal proceedings but who are seeking judicial review of that denial, for example, may obtain employment authorization under 8 C.F.R. §274a.12(c)(8).  An applicant for adjustment of status under INA §245 or cancellation of removal for nonpermanent residents under INA §240A(b) who has his or her application denied by an immigration judge and the BIA, is ordered removed, and petitions for judicial review of the order of removal under 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(2)(D) on the ground that a legal or constitutional error has been made in adjudicating the application, may also renew employment authorization.  Even outside the context of judicial review, an applicant for adjustment who was ordered removed as an arriving alien, and who is nonetheless applying to USCIS for adjustment of status pursuant to Matter of Yauri, 25 I&N Dec. 103 (BIA 2009), can be eligible for employment authorization.

The anomaly of concurrent authorization to work in the United States and lack of authorization to be here, paradoxical though it may have seemed to Justice Alito, can exist even with respect to some of the forms of employment authorization authorized by very specific statutory provisions, rather than under the general authority of 8 U.S.C. §1324a(h)(3)—the forms of employment authorization that even Justice Alito and Texas acknowledge should exist. In 8 U.S.C. §1158(d)(2), for example, Congress specifically indicated that while “an applicant for asylum is not entitled to employment authorization . . . such authorization may be provided under regulation by the Attorney General.”  The implementing regulations at 8 C.F.R. §208.7(b) and 8 C.F.R. § 274a.12(c) make clear that such employment authorization is renewable pending the completion of administrative and judicial review of a denial of the asylum application.  Thus, an asylum applicant whose application was denied, resulting in an order of removal, and who is seeking judicial review of that order, can obtain renewed employment authorization.

Admittedly, in some cases, a court of appeals can grant a stay of the order of removal for an asylum applicant in this situation, pending adjudication of the petition for review—which one might consider a form of authorization to be in the United States. But a stay of removal is not a precondition for a grant of employment under 8 U.S.C. §1158(d)(2) and 8 C.F.R. §274a.12(c)(8), either in theory or in practice.  It is fairly common for asylum applicants who are not detained to pursue judicial review without a stay of removal and to renew their employment authorization while doing so.  They are authorized to work in the United States, even though in theory they are not authorized to be here.  As long as they are here, because the government has not thought it worth removing them during the pendency of their court case, they can lawfully work.

Given Justice Alito’s follow-up question about whether the categories of persons who had employment authorization without lawful presence were “statutory categories”, however, it is also worth emphasizing that other kinds of employment authorization besides those specifically authorized by statute can persist even in the face of a removal order. Employment authorization based on a pending application for adjustment of status or cancellation of removal, under 8 C.F.R. §274a.12(c)(9) and 8 C.F.R. §274a.12(c)(10), does not stem from the sort of type-specific statutory authorization at 8 U.S.C. §1158(d)(2).  Nonetheless, these types of employment authorization, which have been granted for many years in significant volume with little controversy, can be obtained by someone with a final removal order who is seeking judicial review of that order, or who is seeking adjustment of status under Matter of Yauri.  To the extent Justice Alito meant to imply that the seeming paradox of authorized employment without authorized presence could only be justified by a specific statutory authorization, this too was an inaccurate description of the world of immigration law since long before DAPA.

While the discussion at oral argument of employment authorization separate from lawful status did not go so far as to address this issue of employment authorization for those subject to orders of removal, it did seem that the Solicitor General’s emphasis on the sheer scale of those grants of employment authorization may have made an impact on Chief Justice Roberts.  The Chief Justice, at the end of Solicitor General Verilli’s rebuttal, returned to the question of how many of these sorts of employment authorization documents are issued, and the answer on page 90 that there were 4.5 million in the context of adjustment of status since 2008 and 325,000 for cancellation of removal was the last substantive portion of the argument transcript.  This was potentially a strong closing argument, which may be a hopeful sign.

Attempting to predict the outcome of a case from oral argument is always a risky endeavor, and we will have to wait and see what the Court actually does. Nonetheless, it is my hope that the above observations may perhaps provide some additional insight.

Suffocating The Foreign Entrepreneur Under The New STEM Optional Practical Training Rule

Facebook is a good example of an epically successful entrepreneurial venture that was hatched by students in the dorms of Harvard. It is important to allow students who have great dreams and ideas to flourish through startups, and this applies to foreign students who graduate from American universities. Why not encourage foreign students to launch their startups in the United States rather than boot them out?  In our imperfect immigration system that has no true startup visa for the entrepreneur, it makes sense to allow a talented and driven foreign student to use the current nonimmigrant visa categories to establish startups, which in turn can potentially lead to economic growth, bring about paradigm shifts and create millions of new jobs.

This was recognized in the USCIS Entrepreneur Pathways portal, especially with respect to the ability of foreign students to use the optional practical training (OPT) to launch their own ventures. On March 11, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a final rule amending regulations to expand OPT for students with U.S. degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), but also dramatically create new obligations for F-1 students and F-1 employers starting May 10, 2016. While the rule expands STEM OPT from 17 months to 24 months, it creates many more restrictions, and makes it difficult for a student to become an entrepreneur. The new rule requires the establishment of an employer-employee relationship, requiring an employer to complete a formal training plan and make certain attestations, which would render it difficult for the sole founder and owner of a startup to comply and to take advantage of STEM OPT.

OPT is a form of temporary employment available to F-1 students (except those in English language training programs) that directly relates to a student’s major area of study in the United States. A student can apply to engage in OPT during or after completing his or her academic program. A student can apply for 12 months of OPT at each education level (e.g., one 12-month OPT period at the bachelor’s level and another 12-month period at the master’s level). While school is in session, the student may work up to 20 hours per week pursuant to OPT.

DHS first introduced an extension of OPT for STEM graduates in a 2008 interim final rule. Under the 2008 rule, an F-1 student with a STEM degree from a U.S. institution of higher education could apply for an additional 17 months of OPT (17-month STEM OPT extension), provided that the employer from which the student sought employment was enrolled in and remained in good standing in the E-Verify employment eligibility verification program. The Entrepreneur Pathways, as it applied to entrepreneurs utilizing the 17-month OPT did not interpret the existing rule as requiring a rigid employer-employee relationship. On August 12, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the vacatur of the 2008 rule on procedural grounds and remanded the issue to DHS. The court stayed the vacatur until February 12, 2016, to give DHS the opportunity to issue a new rule related to STEM OPT extensions through notice-and-comment rulemaking.

On October 19, 2015, DHS published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to reinstate the STEM OPT extension, with changes intended to enhance the educational benefit afforded by the extension and to increase program oversight, including safeguards to protect U.S. workers. The rule received more than 50,500 comments—the most in DHS history. On January 23, 2016, the court gave DHS additional time to complete the rulemaking following review of public comments and to allow the Department to publish the rule with a 60-day delayed effective date to provide sufficient time for efficient transition to the new rule’s requirements.

DHS has now completed the final rule. Highlights include:

Extension period to increase from 17 to 24 months. Under the amended regulations, F-1 STEM students will be able to extend OPT for an additional 24 months beyond the initial 12 months, replacing the 2008 regulation that allowed F-1 STEM students to receive a 17-month extension of OPT, providing work authorization for employment related to their field of study. The extension from 17 to 24 months is indeed salutary as it would allow the STEM student to continue to be employed in the US even if he or she missed out on the H-1B lottery, and to re-apply for the lottery in the following year.

New reporting requirements for F-1 students and university officials. New reporting requirements include: (1) a six-month validation requirement, confirming the F-1 student applicant’s application for work authorization through the OPT program; (2) an annual self-evaluation required of F-1 students, for designated school officials to review; and (3) an affirmative requirement for F-1 students to report any change in employment status or material departure from the adopted Training Plan. This is in addition to the requirement for F-1 employers to report similar changes to designated school officials within five business days, which remains in effect.

F-1 employer requirement to complete formal Training Plan with F-1 student. The new regulations will increase DHS oversight over the OPT program. F-1 employers must complete a formal Training Plan, Form I-983, and comply with new wage requirements. The formal Training Plan must include concrete learning objectives with proper oversight. F-1 employers must set out the terms and conditions of employment, including the specific duties, hours, and compensation.

As part of the Training Plan, F-1 employers must attest that the F-1 employee is paid a salary commensurate with similarly situated workers and that: “(1) it has sufficient resources and trained personnel available to provide appropriate training in connection with the specified opportunity; (2) the student will not replace a full- or part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker; and (3) the opportunity will help the student attain his or her training objectives.”

It is these attestations that are going to be the bane for aspiring foreign student entrepreneurs. Specifically, the attestation requiring the student to not be replacing a full time or part-time US worker, whether temporary or permanent, that has come from left field. This attestation does not currently exist in the H-1B program too for most employers, unless they are dependent H-1B employers and are not petitioning for exempt employees (those who will be paid $60,000 or have advanced degrees). Moreover, the anti-displacement provisions are currently administered by the Department of Labor for dependent H-1B employers, which has had the experience and expertise to define displacement stemming from employment law jurisprudence through carefully crafted rules at 20 CFR 655 . The non-displacement attestation for STEM OPT students will be overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has no expertise in these sorts of matters.

The following passage from the preamble to the final rule is worth noting:

             Volunteering and Bona Fide Employer-Employee Relationships

The final rule clarifies issues relating to various types of practical training scenarios and whether such scenarios qualify an F-1 student for a STEM OPT extension. The rule specifically clarifies that a student may not receive a STEM OPT extension for a volunteer opportunity. The rule also requires that a student must have a bona fide employer-employee relationship with an employer to obtain a STEM OPT extension. In response to comments received, DHS clarifies that students may be employed by start-up businesses, but all regulatory requirements must be met and the student may not provide employer attestations on his or her own behalf.

While this portion of the preamble acknowledges that students may be employed by start-up businesses, it does signal the death knell for the entrepreneur who is the sole founder of the startup as it does not allow the student to provide employer attestations. DHS further clarifies that students in STEM OPT “may be employed by new ‘start-up’ businesses so long as all regulatory requirements are met, including that the employer adheres to the training plan requirements, remains in good standing with E-Verify, will provide compensation to the STEM OPT student commensurate to that provided to similarly situated U.S. workers, and has the resources to comply with the training plan.”  This will be possible in a more elaborate startup potentially involving more than one shareholder so that an employer-employee relationship can be maintained and there are sufficient resources to implement a training plan.

The preamble also notes that alternate forms of compensation may be allowed, such as stock options, so long as the student can remain a bona fide employee, and such compensation is commensurate with what is provided to similarly situated workers. In fact, new 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C)(8) provides that if an employer does not have other similarly situated workers, which would be the case in a startup, the employer is still obligated to attest that the compensation and other terms would be commensurate with other US workers in the area of employment.

While all this appears that students can avail of STEM OPT at startups, it would be difficult to do so, as experience has shown with the H-1B program under the Neufeld Memo, that requires a rigid and inflexible demonstration of the employer-employee relationship. The more flexible employment arrangements, which included self-employment, in prior ICE SEVICS guidance that would have been more conducive for the entrepreneur have all now been thrown out of the window under the new regulation. The saving grace is that the less rigid format still exists under the initial 12-month OPT, and thus an aspiring entrepreneur could start out in a more freewheeling way, and then develop a structured entity with an employer-employee relationship during the 24-month STEM OPT period. This would also pave the way for the startup to secure an H-1B visa, should the petition be selected under the annual lottery, which also would impose the same employer-employee requirement.

DHS to conduct on-site visits. The new regulations state that DHS has discretion to conduct employer site visits to ensure that F-1 employers meet the requirements of the OPT program. Generally, DHS must provide notice 48 hours before an on-site inspection, unless the visit is conducted in response to a complaint or evidence of noncompliance. As noted, the site visits will be conducted by DHS officials who may have no expertise in determining whether the student is being paid the salary commensurate to other similar workers or whether the employer has displaced US workers. Moreover, while the preamble contemplates employment at startups, there is nothing in the actual rule that clarifies this, making it harder to convince the untrained site visitor that a bona fide employer-employee relationship is possible even in a startup.

Cap-gap extension language clarified. DHS has revised the cap-gap extension regulation to clarify that the extension for F-1 students with pending H-1B petitions and requests for change of status temporarily extends the OPT period until October 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Transition Procedures.   A student may still file for STEM OPT 17-month extension up to May 9, 2016.  However, as a practical matter, if this extension is still pending as of May 10, 2016, the USCIS will issue a Request for Evidence (“RFE”) so that the student may amend his or her application for the 24-month extension without incurring additional fees or having to refile the Form I-765, Application for Employment  Authorization.  Therefore, given that the USCIS is granting a 90 day processing time for STEM extension applications, an application filed today may likely not get approved by May 9, 2016 under the existing rule.

Students who have valid 17-month STEM OPT prior to May 10, 2016 will not automatically be extended to 24 months.  Those who are under the 17-month STEM OPT rule are not subject to the new requirements imposed under the 24-month rule.   On the other hand, they may apply for an additional 7-month extension if they choose to, but a self-employed entrepreneur who is the sole founder with no employer-employee structure would need to alter the business model.  The qualifying student must meet the following requirements and must file between May 10, 2016 and August 8, 2016 for the additional 7 months:

  1. The student must meet all the requirements for the 24-month STEM OPT extension under the new Final Rule as described in 8 CRR 214.2(f)(1)(ii)(C), and
  2. must submit of the Training Plan (Form I-983), completed by the student and the employer, to the DSO, and
  3. must have 150 calendar days remaining on their current 17-month STEM OPT Extension at the time the Application for Employment Authorization is filed, and
  4. must apply within 60 days of the date the DSO enters the recommendation for 24-month STEM OPT.

Additionally, the final rule states:

  • Only students who earned a degree from a school accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) may apply for a STEM OPT extension.
  • Participating students who receive an additional qualifying degree from an accredited college or university can apply for a second STEM OPT extension.
  • Participating students can use a previously earned qualifying degree to apply for a STEM OPT extension. The prior degree must not have already formed the basis of a STEM OPT extension and must be from a school that is both accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by SEVP at the time of the student’s STEM OPT application. The student’s most recent degree must also be from an accredited and SEVP-certified institution.
  • Students must work at least 20 hours per week per employer to qualify.
  • Students are permitted a limited period of unemployment during the initial period of post-completion OPT and the STEM OPT extension.
  • All STEM OPT employers must participate in DHS’s E-Verify program.

Also on March 11, 2016, SEVP launched a STEM OPT Hub at https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/stem-opt-hub. The Hub includes resources for students, designated school officials, and employers.

While the 24 months provides a good opportunity for a foreign student to remain in the United States after graduating especially in light of the uncertainties under the H-1B lottery, this student will also be subject to several new and novel restrictions, and it remains to be seen how they will be enforced through DHS site visits. Although the F-1 STEM OPT program had nothing to do with the opprobrium caused by the layoff of US workers at Disney and other large US employers by H-1B workers, that effect has unfortunately spilt into these new STEM OPT rules. These rules now require novel compensation and non-displacement attestation, which in turn would dissuade the foreign student from founding a startup unless it can accommodate other overseers and busybodies who would serve as trainers and employers. When protectionism, whether in the spheres of trade or jobs, has become the flavor of the season, the tantalizing possibility of a foreign entrepreneur exponentially enhancing trade and jobs has sadly taken a back seat.

Winter Blues: Freezing the Age of a Child Under the December 2015 Visa Bulletin

Although the State Department Visa Bulletin announced dual dates on September 9, 2015 – a filing date and a final action date – effective October 1 2015, the government has yet to clarify how these dates protect a derivative child from aging out (turning 21) under the Child Status Protection Act. If a derivative child turns 21, the child cannot automatically obtain permanent residency status with the parent, and thus the CSPA freezes the age of a child below 21.

The new filing date in the Visa Bulletin 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 will be the date when green cards can actually be issued.  The filing date thus allows for the early submission of adjustment applications prior to the date when green cards actually become available. Similarly for those who are outside the United States and processing for an immigrant visa overseas, the filing date should allow applicants to submit the DS 260 immigrant visa application.

Prior to the October 2015 Visa Bulletin, the cut-off date was based on the government’s ability to issue a green card during that month.  While there has been no official guidance, and many of the practice advisories issued make scant reference, it is important that we advocate that the age of the child also be protected under the CSPA at the time that the filing date becomes current for the applicant. A child ceases to be considered a child upon turning 21, and can no longer immigrate as a derivative with the parent, especially when the parent is likely to be caught in the backlogs. It is thus important that the CSPA is made applicable to protect the child’s age at the time of the earlier filing date. This will also promote legal consistency and harmony with respect to the broader definition of visa availability in the new visa bulletin. [Readers are cautioned not to expect that this will happen, and the whole purpose of this blog is to advocate that children get CSPA protection under the new visa bulletin.]

Notwithstanding the abrupt retrogression of the filing dates on September 25, 2015 that were first announced on September 9, 2015, thus impeding the ability of thousands who were ready to file adjustment applications on October 1, 2015,  the dual date system still exists, albeit not as advantageously as before. The Visa Bulletin has been further undermined after the USCIS was given authority to determine filing dates for purposes of filing adjustment applications. One has to now also refer to http://www.uscis.gov/visabulletininfo to determine whether adjustment applicants can use the filing dates each month established by the State Department in the Visa Bulletin. For the first two months in 2015, October and November,  the USCIS indicated that the filing dates could be used, but for December 2015, the USCIS abruptly announced without explanation that only the final action date could be used for filing I-485 applications. This has caused further confusion regarding the applicability of the CSPA.

As background, INA 245(a)(3) only allows for the filing of an I-485 adjustment of status application when “an immigrant visa is immediately available.” Visa availability will no longer be defined by when visas are actually available. The Visa Bulletin in its new reincarnation now views it more broadly as “dates for filing visa applications within a time frame justifying immediate action in the application process.” The USCIS similarly views visa availability opaquely as “eligible applicants” who “are able to take one of the final steps in the process of becoming U.S. permanent residents.”  These new interpretations provide more flexibility for the State Department to move the filing date even further, and make it closer to current. Thus, the government’s argument that it made a mistake when announcing the more advantageous filing dates on September 9, 2015 in the lawsuit, Mehta v. DOL, makes no sense.  Indeed, visa availability ought to be based on just one visa being saved in the backlogged preference category, such as the India EB-3, like the proverbial Thanksgiving turkey. Just like one turkey every Thanksgiving day is pardoned by the President and not consumed, similarly one visa can also be left intact rather than consumed by the foreign national beneficiary.  The new way of interpreting visa availability makes it possible to file an adjustment of status application earlier than before, along with all the accompanying benefits that arise, such as job portability under INA 204(j), work authorization for the principal and derivative family members and travel permission. Similarly, CSPA protection should also be made available to children who may age out at the time of the earlier filing date so as to maximize the chance for children to obtain their green cards with the parent.

I strongly advocate that if there is now a broader interpretation of visa availability for purpose of filing an I-485 adjustment application at the filing date, this same filing date should lock in the CSPA age too. Otherwise the whole scheme collapses like a house of cards if there is no consistency. If there must be visa availability to file an I-485 under INA 245(a)(3) in order to enjoy 204(j) portability, it makes sense to use the same new interpretation of visa availability to lock in the child’s age at the filing date.  Imagine filing an I-485 for a minor at the time of the filing date who is not protected under the CSPA, and once s/he ages out, is no longer eligible to even be an adjustment applicant, and has to leave the US while the parents can continue as adjustment applicants.

There’s also no point in providing the earlier filing date in the new visa bulletin for immigrant visa applicants overseas, otherwise they get no tangible benefit, except to be able to lock in the child’s age earlier at the time of the filing date under the CSPA.

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 under the new interpretation of visa availability pursuant to 245(a)(3), then the interpretation regarding visa availability under 203(h)(1)(A) should be consistent.

Even though the filing date may not be available for submitting an adjustment application under December 1, 2015, according to the USCIS, this should not preclude an applicant from claiming the earlier filing date for purposes of freezing the age of the child below 21 years. In order to meet all the conditions of freezing the age under the CSPA, the child should have also sought to acquire lawful permanent residency within one year of visa availability, which is arguably the filing date. However, what if the USCIS does not allow usage of the filing date for I-485 applications for more than a year? Does this mean that the child’s age cannot be protected under the CSPA? One possibility is to seek permanent residency through consular processing, and file Form I-824, which enables consular processing of an approved I-130 or I-140 petition. The filing of Form I-824 would constitute evidence of seeking to acquire permanent residency within one year of visa availability, which is when the filing date became current. Even if the parent and child are unable to file an adjustment application, or even be able to obtain a green card imminently, filing the I-824 at least clearly fulfills the condition of seeking to acquire permanent residency within one year of visa availability.  Once the USCIS allows usage of the filing date, an adjustment application can subsequently be filed, and the filing of the I-824 application to initiate consular processing would constitute solid evidence of the applicant seeking permanent residency within one year of visa availability.

Until there is more clarity, it makes sense to take advantage of the earlier filing date to protect the age of the child, and then seek to acquire permanent residency within one year of the filing date becoming current. Of course, given that there is no harmony between the DOS and the USCIS with respect to availability of filing dates, it may be possible to also claim the final action date for purposes of protecting the age of the child, and then seeking to acquire permanent residency within one year of the final action date becoming current. I had suggested in my earlier blog that permanent residency should only be sought within one year of the filing date becoming current so that the concept of visa availability be applied consistently. However, given that the USCIS has not permitted the filing of I-485 applications in the month of December 2015, although the State Department has released a filing date, a child applicant should take advantage of either the filing date or the final action date for purposes of CSPA protection.

There has undoubtedly been much confusion caused by the new Visa Bulletin that took effect on October 1, 2015. While there is an ongoing legal fight to challenge the government’s abrupt reversal of the filing dates on September 25, 2015, we must also force the government to agree with the interpretation that the CSPA should lock in a child’s age based on the new filing date. In the months when the USCIS does not permit adjustment submissions based on the filing date, applicants should still be able to lock in the CSPA age based on the filing date in the Visa Bulletin, as well as based on the final action date, whichever is more advantageous. It is really surprising that the government has said nothing thus far, and hopefully, this blog should prompt a discussion.

Non-Retroactivity of BIA Precedent Decisions: De Niz Robles v. Lynch and other Recent Court of Appeals Rulings

Earlier this year, in Zombie Precedents, the Sequel, I discussed how the Second Circuit’s April 2015 decision in Lugo v. Holder exemplified a better way of dealing with precedent decisions that had been overturned by a court.  As I noted in that blog post, the Second Circuit remanded Lugoto the BIA not only to deal with the issue raised by the overturned precedent, but also to deal with a related question regarding the retroactivity of the BIA’s decision in Matter of Robles-Urrea.  In that regard, the Second Circuit’s decision in Lugoforms part of an interesting trend regarding limits on the retroactivity of BIA decisions, most recently exemplified by the Tenth Circuit’s decision last week in De Niz Robles v. Lynch.

The issue in De Niz Robles concerned the interaction of INA §245(i), 8 U.S.C. §1255(i), with INA §212(a)(9)(C)(i)(I), 8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(9)(C)(i)(I).  The former provision, as has been discussed previously on this blog in a September 2010 post by Cyrus D. Mehta, allows adjustment of status by certain applicants who have entered without inspection, or are otherwise disqualified from adjustment under INA §245(a) and (c), if they are “grandfathered” as the principal or derivative beneficiaries of appropriate visa petitions or labor certification applications filed prior to April 30, 2001.  The latter provision declares inadmissible those who have been unlawfully present in the United States for a year or more and have subsequently re-entered without inspection, subject to a potential waiver which must be sought 10 years after one’s last departure from the United States.  These provisions, as the 10th Circuit noted in De Niz Robles, are in some tension with one another.

Approximately ten years ago, the Tenth Circuit held in Padilla-Caldera v. Gonzales (Padilla-Caldera I), 426 F.3d 1294 (10th Cir. 2005), amended and superseded on reh’g, 453 F.3d 1237 (10th Cir. 2006), that §245(i) prevailed over §212(a)(9)(C)(i)(I), such that Mr. Padilla-Caldera could adjust status under §245(i) despite having been unlawfully present for over a year, left the United States in order to seek an immigrant visa, and ultimately re-entered without inspection.  The BIA then held differently in Matter of Briones, 24 I&N Dec. 355 (BIA 2007), finding that inadmissibility under §212(a)(9)(C)(i)(I) prevented §245(i) adjustment.  The Tenth Circuit, in Padilla-Caldera v. Holder (Padilla-Caldera II), 637 F.3d 1140 (10th Cir. 2011), deferred to this BIA decision pursuant to Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), and National Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services (“Brand X”), 545 U.S. 967 (2005), finding it to be a reasonable interpretation of ambiguous statutory language.

In the meantime, however, between the time of Padilla-Caldera I and Matter of Briones, Mr. De Niz Robles had applied for adjustment of status under §245(i) based on Padilla-Caldera I.  His application took so long to process that it was adjudicated after Padilla-Caldera II, and the BIA, applying that decision and Matter of Briones, denied Mr. De Niz Robles’s application.  He argued that this was an inappropriately retroactive application of Matter of Briones to an application filed before that decision was issued.  The Tenth Circuit agreed.

As the Tenth Circuit pointed out, when Mr. De Niz Robles filed his application in 2007, he had the option of instead leaving the United States, and serving out the ten-year period before he could apply for a waiver of his inadmissibility under INA §212(a)(9)(C)(i)(I).  In reliance on the case law as it existed at that time, specifically Padilla-Caldera I, he chose to apply for adjustment of status instead.  The BIA, by applying Matter of Briones to Mr. De Niz Robles six years later in 2013, and defending that position on appeal in 2015, had put Mr. De Niz Robles in the position of having lost years of time that he could have spent towards the ten-year waiver qualification period—by now, he would have served out eight of the required ten years and been only two years away from being able to apply for a waiver, had he left.  This, the Tenth Circuit said, was retroactive application of the Briones decision, and was not permissible.

When the BIA or a similar agency tribunal acts to overturn an existing decision via Brand X, the Tenth Circuit decided, it should be treated for retroactivity purposes similarly to an agency that declares its new policy through rulemaking.  Although retroactive rulemaking is sometimes permitted, it is disfavored.  Applying the factors that govern such a retroactive agency rulemaking, the Tenth Circuit determined that the reasonableness of Mr. De Niz Robles’s reliance on Padilla-Caldera I, and the dire consequences to him if the BIA’s ruling was allowed to stand, weighed particularly strongly in favor of finding that Briones should not be applied to him.

In this way, De Niz Robleswent beyond what Lugohad done, flatly finding that it would be inappropriate to give retroactive effect to the BIA’s ruling rather than merely remanding for further explanation of the point.  This is partly because the context made clearer in De Niz Roblesthat there had in fact been a retroactive ruling.  The Second Circuit in Lugo had asked the BIA to address, among other factors, “whether its holding in Matter of Robles-Urreawas a departure from prior law.”  Lugo, slip op. at 5.  In De Niz Robles, the Tenth Circuit did not need to defer to the BIA on the analogous question, but was able to resolve it on its own: it was quite clear that Briones was a departure from prior law, at least within the jurisdiction of the Tenth Circuit, where it was contrary to Padilla-Caldera I.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit followed a similar path to the Tenth in Acosta-Olivarria v. Lynch, decided less than two months before De Niz Robles, on August 26, 2015.  Like the Tenth Circuit, the Ninth had, prior to Matter of Briones, issued a decision allowing §245(i) adjustment despite inadmissibility under INA §212(a)(9)(C)(i)(I): Acosta v. Gonzales, 439 F.3d 550 (9th Cir. 2006).  Like the Tenth Circuit, after Briones, the Ninth Circuit had overruled its decision, in Garfias-Rodriguez v. Holder, 702 F.3d 504 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc), deferring to the BIA under Brand X.  And like Mr. De Niz Robles, Mr. Acosta-Olivarria had applied for adjustment of status after his Circuit case law indicated he could do so, and before the BIA and Circuit told him he could not.  The bottom line was the same in Acosta-Olivarria as in De Niz Robles: the Ninth Circuit held, over one judge’s dissent, that the BIA’s ruling in Briones could not be applied retroactively to Mr. Acosta-Olivarria, and so an immigration judge’s order granting him adjustment of status, which had been set aside by the BIA, was reinstated.

De Niz Robles, Acosta-Olivarriaand Lugoare not the only relatively recent decisions to reject or cast doubt on retroactive application of a BIA ruling.  The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also did this in its July 2014 decision in Velasquez-Garcia v. Holder, 760 F.3d 571 (7th Cir. 2014).  There, the Seventh Circuit rejected retroactive application of the BIA’s decision in Matter of O. Vasquez, 25 I&N Dec. 817 (BIA 2012), interpreting the “sought to acquire” language of the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA).
As discussed in more detail by a numberof postson this blogand articleson our firm’s website, INA §203(h)(1)(A), added by section 3 of the CSPA, requires that a child have “sought to acquire” lawful permanent residence within one year of visa availability in order to take advantage of protections under the CSPA that fix the child’s age for purposes of derivative visa eligibility  at a point younger than that child’s actual biological age.  The BIA held in Matter of O. Vasquez that absent “extraordinary circumstances”, this provision could only be satisfied by the actual filing of an application for adjustment of status or of analogous forms and fees used to apply for an immigrant visa from the Department of State.  (USCIS subsequently issued an interim Policy Memorandum elaborating on what it would consider to be extraordinary circumstances.)  Prior to O. Vasquez, however, the BIA had in several non-precedential decisions been more lenient, allowing a broader set of “substantial steps” towards the obtainment of permanent residence to qualify as seeking to acquire for CSPA purposes.  As discussed in a previous post on this blog, for example, the BIA’s October 2010 unpublished decision in Matter of Murillo and other pre-2010 cases allowed such steps as hiring an attorney to meet the seeking-to-acquire requirement.

The Seventh Circuit in Velasquez-Garciaheld that it would not be appropriate to apply the stricter O. Vasquez standard to those who may have complied with the prior, laxer standard of seeking to acquire before O. Vasquez was issued.  As the Court of Appeals explained: “In light of the state of the law at the critical time, a reasonable person reasonably could have assumed that the [CSPA] did not require him to file an application within one year.”  Given the immense burden that applying the new rule retroactively would have imposed on Velasquez, and the tension between the effect of retroactive application and the remedial purpose of the CSPA to ameliorate the effect of administrative delays – among which the Seventh Circuit included the eight-year delay by the BIA before promulgating precedential guidance regarding “sought to acquire” in O. Vasquez – the Seventh Circuit held that Mr. Velasquez-Garcia should be permitted to proceed under the standard in effect prior to O. Vasquez.

These sorts of retroactivity issues can be expected to continue to arise in the future as the BIA aggressively uses its policymaking interpretative authority under Chevron and Brand X, at least when that authority is used to reinterpret a standard unfavorably to immigrants.  (Changes in a rule which are more favorable to those affected by that rule are not the sort which raise retroactivity concerns under the case law, since allowing someone to apply for a benefit from which he or she previously was precluded does not raise the same unfairness concerns as a change in the other direction.)  Under such circumstances, attorneys and clients should be alert for the possibility that the less-favorable BIA precedent may not apply retroactively, particularly to those who could potentially have relied on the prior state of the law.  The issue of retroactivity is often a complicated one, but it is worth exploring in appropriate cases.

What One Hand Giveth the Other Taketh Away: Are We Truly Welcoming Foreign Entrepreneurs to America?

“Our nation has always attracted individuals with great drive and entrepreneurial spirit. As the world’s greatest economy and a global leader in innovation, the United States must continue to welcome and retain the next generation of foreign entrepreneurs who will start new businesses and create new jobs here in America.”

The above is an extract from the USCIS’ Entrepreneur Pathways Portal which provides guidance on how entrepreneurs can obtain nonimmigrant visa status through a startup entity. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) launched its Entrepreneurs in Residence initiative in 2012 and later the portal. Prior to that, in an August 2, 2011 press release, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that “The United States must continue to attract the best and brightest from around the world to invest their talents, skills, and ideas to grow our economy and create American jobs.” Through the Entrepreneurs in Residence program, USCIS officers are supposed to be trained to recognize the unique nature of a startup and to understand that a nonimmigrant petition based on a startup will not present the characteristics typical of a petition filed through a more established business entity. Startups often lack a formal office space; they may operate in stealth mode in an effort to hide information from competitors; and the foreign national seeking nonimmigrant status in the US often has a majority interest in the startup. Unfortunately, too often a benefit conferred on one hand is taken away by the other hand. USCIS has created these seemingly great avenues for entrepreneurs but other USCIS initiatives and other agencies such as the Department of Labor (DOL) make it harder for those same entrepreneurs to continue to obtain benefits.

One example is the DHS’ proposed rule, “Improving and Expanding Training Opportunities for F-1 Nonimmigrant Students with STEM Degrees and Cap-Gap Relief for All Eligible F-1 Students,” which was published in the Federal Register on October 19, 2015 for comment. In sum, the rule proposes to amend the F-1 student visa regulations regarding optional practical training (OPT) for certain students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) from U.S. institutions of higher education. Under the current rule, students can receive up to 12 months of OPT upon graduation. In 2008, the DHS published regulations authorizing an additional 17-months extension of the OPT period for foreign students who graduated in STEM fields. The new rule proposes to allow F-1 STEM students who have elected to pursue 12 months of OPT to extend the OPT period by 24 months. This new 24-month extension would effectively replace the 17-month STEM OPT extension currently available to these students. This is indeed a positive development, and it encourages talented foreign students to remain in the United States and contribute to the US economy.

A STEM graduate may also utilize the OPT period to work for their own startup. But one aspect of the proposed rule might mean that this STEM graduate may not be able to obtain the 24-month extension to continue working for the startup. One of the things that will be required under the proposed rule is the implementation of formal mentoring and training plans by employers for the STEM OPT employee. The employer must also implement a process for evaluating the OPT employee. The STEM OPT extension could be difficult to establish for the OPT employee who is the majority shareholder in their startup. It appears that here the government will want to see proof of the typical employer-employee relationship which totally goes against everything it tries to do through the USCIS Entrepreneurs Pathway portal and erodes the whole idea of the startup.

Even if the foreign national were to obtain nonimmigrant visa status, that status is temporary. If the foreign national is desirous of obtaining lawful permanent residence in the US through their own company, there s/he may face another roadblock.

Recently, in Step By Step Day Care LLC, 2012-PER-00737 (Sept. 25, 2015), the Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals (BALCA) affirmed the denial of a PERM labor certification finding that the offered position was not open to U.S. workers because the beneficiary was in a position to control or influence hiring decisions regarding the job. The employer filed a PERM labor certification for the position of “Daycare Center Director” indicating on the application form that the company is a closely-held corporation in which the foreign national has an ownership interest.  The DOL issued an audit request for documentation that included information on the business structure; a statement describing any familial relationships between parties with ownership interests in the company and the foreign national; the name of the employee with the primary responsibility for interviewing and hiring applicants; and the names of the employer’s officials who have control or influence over hiring decisions involving the job opportunity listed on the PERM application. The employer’s audit response showed that the foreign national beneficiary of the PERM application and her husband each held 50% ownership of the company, and they were here on E-2 visas. (The E-2 visa is one such visa that is encouraged for startups in the Entrepreneurs Pathway Portal). The foreign national was the Director and her husband was the Operations Manager. The recruitment was conducted by the company’s Assistant Director.

The Certifying Officer (CO) denied the application on the grounds that the employer had not overcome the presumption that exists that a job opportunity is not bona fide when the employer is a closely-held company where the beneficiary has an ownership interest or a familial relationship with the stockholders, officers, incorporators, or partners, and is one of a small number of employees. The CO took issue with the fact that the hiring official, the Assistant Director, was a subordinate of the beneficiary and is not the usual official having authority over hiring decisions.

In its motion for reconsideration, the employer explained that while the beneficiary and her husband typically made the hiring decisions in consultation with the Assistant Director, the hiring process was modified in for purposes under the labor certification recruitment because the beneficiary was also the co-owner. The employer held that neither the beneficiary nor her husband were involved in recruitment. The employer argued that the beneficiary and her husband each held E-2 investor visas as a result of purchasing the company and therefore the beneficiary’s stay in the US was not dependent on her position as Director and provided documentation to show that the position was a requirement for daycare businesses under Florida law and did not exist for the benefit of the foreign national beneficiary. The CO nevertheless upheld the denial.

As background, mere existence of a family relationship, or the fact that the beneficiary is the owner of the sponsoring entity, should not lead to a conclusion that a job opportunity was not bona fide.  When determining whether a bona fide job opportunity exists, the CO must consider the totality of the circumstances, considering, among other factors, whether the alien:

  1. Is in the position to control or influence hiring decisions regarding the job for which labor certification is sought;
  2. Is related to the corporate directors, officers, or employees;
  3. Was an incorporator or founder of the company;
  4. Has an ownership interest in the company;
  5. Is involved in the management of the company;
  6. Is on the board of directors;
  7. Is one of a small number of employees;
  8. Has qualifications for the job that are identical to specialized or unusual job duties and requirements stated in the application; and
  9. Is so inseparable from the sponsoring employer because of his or her pervasive presence and personal attributes that the employer would be unlikely to continue in operation without the alien.

Good Deal, Inc., 2009-PER-00309 (Mar. 3, 2010) (citing Modular Container Systems, Inc., 1989-INA-228, (July 16, 1991) (en banc).  The Board should also consider the Employer’s compliance and good faith in the application process. Id.  No single factor, such as a familial relationship between the alien and the employer or the size of the employer, shall be controlling. See Labor Certification for the Permanent Employment of Aliens in the United States; Implementation of New System, 69 Fed. Reg. 77326, 77356 (Dec. 27, 2004).

Upon review, BALCA held that having recruitment conducted by a subordinate of the foreign national beneficiary is not in the best interests of U.S. worker applicants. BALCA found it difficult to believe that the beneficiary exercised no influence on the hiring process. BALCA cited 20 CFR 656.10(b)(ii) which states:

The employer’s representative who interviews or considers U.S. workers for the job offered to the alien must be the person who normally interviews or considers, on behalf of the employer, applicants for job opportunities such as that offered the alien, but which do not involve labor certifications.

BALCA held that since the Assistant Director did not normally conduct interviews or consider applications, this regulation was not met. With regard to the employer’s statement that the beneficiary did not need the position since she held E-2 status, BALCA held that the filing of the labor certification indicated the beneficiary’s preference to remain in the position.

The foreign national entrepreneur who successfully obtains nonimmigrant visa status to run a business in the US could later be kicked out when that temporary nonimmigrant visa status expires. In the above discussed BALCA case, the beneficiary held E-2 status which could be extended indefinitely. However, a beneficiary with H-1B status would need to leave the US upon reaching the maximum 6-year limit.  While there may be other options for entrepreneurs on a temporary visa to get permanent residency, such as through the national interest waiver or as a person of extraordinary ability, very few can qualify under these pathways. The majority of skilled foreign nationals get sponsored via an employer through the labor certification process, and the odds of winning labor certification substantially lessen when one is the owner or founder of the sponsoring entity. It is not clear how such conflicting policies could work to “[attract] individuals with great drive and entrepreneurial spirit” and “welcome and retain the next generation of foreign entrepreneurs who will start new businesses and create new jobs here in America.” What one hand giveth the other taketh away.

Work Authorization for H-4 Spouses: The Experience Thus Far

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS)”) announced in February 2015 that beginning May 26, 2015, eligible H-4 spouses of H-1B visa holders could begin applying for employment authorization documents (EADs) from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).  This change in the regulations was in keeping with President Obama’s efforts to encourage highly skilled workers to stay and set roots in the U.S.  Whereas before many H-1B visa workers were often the only ones toiling for their entire families, the new H-4 EADs for their spouses provide the primary H-1B visa holders more financial stability because their spouses can also work and add to the family income, the spouses joining the U.S. workforce create new connections within the community, and economic doors are opened for prosperity, such as purchasing homes and growing families.  In the past, the lack of H-4 work authorization has frustrated many spouses who otherwise were qualified and wanted to enter the workforce, but were unable to do so because their H-1B spouses could not apply for green cards due to the crushing backlogs in the EB-2 and EB-3 categories.  Even now, the H-4 EADs are not open to every H-4 spouse; it is only a limited group whose H-1Bs spouses were fortunate enough to have an employer sponsor them for a green card.

As a practical matter, the eligibility criteria for the EADs are fairly straightforward: the H-1B visa holder

  1. Must be the beneficiary of an approved I-140 or
  2. Was granted an H-1B extension pursuant to sections 106(a) and (b) of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 (“AC21”).

In both these cases, a Permanent Labor Certification (“PERM”) was filed on behalf of the H-1B worker.

When applying for the H-4 EAD, applicants must complete the I-765 and indicate the correct category under which the EAD should be issued; here, the correct category is (c)(26).  In addition, the applicant must provide evidence of his or her eligibility.  This is where things can be confusing.  The USCIS has provided a handy FAQ page for guidance.  The FAQ provides a list of evidence that must be provided along with the I-765 form, filing fee, and two passport-style photos.  First, the applicant must provide evidence of his or her H-4 nonimmigrant status.  This can be a copy of the I-797 Approval Notice for the change of status or extension of status for the H-4 visa or a copy of the applicant’s H-4 visa affixed to the passport.  Second, the applicant must provide proof of the spousal relationship with the H-1B principal immigrant.  This can simply be a marriage certificate.  Applicants whose marriage certificates are not in English must provide a certified translation.  Third, the applicant must submit evidence of the spouse’s H-1B status, such as copies of the H-1B approval notice, form I-94, receipt number of the approved H-1B filing, or passport plus visas and admission stamps.  We also recommend that the applicant show proof that the H-1B has maintained valid H-1B status by providing recent pay stubs.

A fourth set of evidence is required to prove how the H-1B spouse either is the beneficiary of an approved I-140 or has received an H-1B extension pursuant to AC21. To simplify matters, we will first discuss how to demonstrate that an approved I-140 petition exists.  The applicant should submit a copy of the I-797 approval notice for the I-140.  If the approval notice is not available, one could provide a copy of that petition’s receipt notice and a note explaining why the approval notice cannot be provided.

In cases where the applicant must provide evidence that the H-1B spouse was granted an H-1B extension pursuant to AC21 sections 106(a) and (b), the evidentiary requirements can get more confusing.  When the spouse is the beneficiary of a PERM filed 365 days before the end of the spouse’s 6 year maximum stay in H-1B status, the applicant must provide proof of the PERM’s filing, the date of filing, and the date when the spouse’s H-1B status is or was set to expire.  Copies of the PERM from the DOL website, along with the travel dates of the spouse while in H-1B status and an explanation of how the PERM was filed more than 365 days before the end of the 6 year maximum, should be sufficient.  Where the PERM has been certified and the I-140 timely filed within 6 months of the PERM’s certification date, the applicant should submit copies of the I-140 receipt notice with the certified PERM.  If the PERM has been denied, it would still be considered “in process” or pending for AC21 purposes if the employer has filed a Request for Reconsideration with the Certifying Officer or an appeal to the Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals (“BALCA”).  If the applicant does not have access to copies of the PERM form, but the I-140 is pending, he or she can submit the receipt notice for the I-140 (or other evidence of its filing) along with an explanation of how it was filed more than 365 days before the 6-year H-1B limit.

In the event primary evidence is unavailable, USCIS seems to be willing to accept secondary evidence, such as attestations that list information about the I-129 or I-140 petition filings. However, the applicant must first demonstrate why the primary evidence could not be submitted.  If the applicant cannot submit proof of eligibility, the EAD application will be in danger of denial.

Other issues that may arise out of the H-4 EAD surround the I-140 approval.  The USCIS has expressly written in the FAQ that where H-1B spouse has a revoked I-140 approval, the H-4 EAD will be denied.  However, the FAQ mentions revocations by USCIS, which is presumably when USCIS takes action under 8 CFR §205.2 to revoke an I-140 due to fraud or misrepresentation.  Practically, however, it matters not whether the revocation was automatic pursuant to 8 CFR §205.1(a)(3)(iii)(C) because a former employer withdrew the I-140, or if the revocation was due to fraud because USCIS will deny the H-4 EAD in these cases, no matter what the root cause of the I-140 revocation.  Therefore, the applicant should check the I-140 receipt number on the USCIS case status search function to ensure that the I-140 is still approved.  Sometimes the USCIS online case status function is not updated to reflect a revocation; thus, wherever possible, applicants should be more diligent and ask their spouses to find out the status of the I-140 from the prior employers.

Another potential landmine is in cases where the filing is based on a pending I-140 which is then denied before the H-4 EAD application is adjudicated.  If this occurs and the spouse’s employer is pursuing a Motion to Reconsider or Reopen the denial, or appeal to the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO), the applicant should submit through a response to a Request for Evidence (which the USCIS should be issuing) that a motion or appeal has been filed, and also submit proof that the PERM was filed 365 days before the H-1B’s six year expiration.

Timing for the H-4 EAD filing is crucial as the expiration of the EAD is based on the spouse’s H-1B expiration, and it behooves the applicant to obtain the longest validity period for the EAD.  For example, if the applicant’s spouse’s current H-1B will expire in May 2016 but the spouse is eligible for a 3-year H-1B extension by virtue of an approved I-140 and pursuant to AC21 section 104(c).  In this case, it makes more sense to wait until November 2015 to file the EAD application concurrently with the H-1B and H-4 extensions of status so that the EAD would be valid through May 2019, instead of filing the EAD application now, getting an EAD valid through May 2016, and then having to file again in early 2016.

Further, the applicant should be aware that if the EAD application is filed concurrently with an extension of status or change of status application, the underlying extension or change in status application must first be approved before USCIS will adjudicate the EAD application.  While at the time of writing this blog the USCIS processing times for change of status and extension of status applications hover around four months, there is no guarantee that processing times will not lengthen.  If timing is of the essence, the applicant might consider traveling abroad to undergo consular process for the H-4 visa.  Often this is a more speedy method of obtaining an H-4 visa.  Applicants should note that they cannot apply for the H-4 EAD until they return to the U.S. in valid H-4 status.

While on the matter of travel, it should be noted that the EAD card cannot be used to travel and it cannot be used to prove valid visa status in the U.S.  It simply allows the H-4 visa holder to accept employment.    In fact, if the applicant travels while an application to change status to H-4 is pending along with the EAD application, the change of status will be denied and this will likely vitiate the pending application for EAD too.  Thus, if the applicant cannot avoid travel during the pendency of the change of status and EAD applications, he or she must instead undergo consular process for the H-4 visa, be admitted on the H-4 visa, and again file the I-765 for the EAD once he or she is back in the U.S.  Another note we make is that recipients of H-4 EADs are not limited in the type of employment they can accept.  Aside from state licensing requirements for specific occupations (for attorneys, for example), the H-4 visa holders should be able to accept a wide array of employment.  It bears repeating that the EAD does not grant separate visa status; only the H-4 visa provides the requisite visa status and the means by which the nonimmigrant is able to remain in the U.S.

H-4 EAD applicants must be diligent in obtaining evidence of their eligibility and be aware of timing concerns.  For eligible applicants, this opportunity to obtain authorization for employment is welcome news, as it allows for more than just one family member to work lawfully in the U.S.  Still, the H-4 EAD regulation is on shaky ground.  It is being challenged in a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) where plaintiffs argue that DHS overstepped its legal power as granted by the Immigration and Nationality Act when it issued the regulations allowing for the H-4 EADs.  (Save Jobs USA v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Security, case number 1:15-cv-00615, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, April 23, 2015).  The litigation is ongoing, and it adds to the uncertainty in which many H-1B and H-4 visa holders live in the U.S. Unfortunately, it will have to suffice for the moment because many H-1B visa holders with approved I-140 petitions cannot yet apply for their adjustments of status and the ancillary benefits of an EAD and advance parole.  The disappointing actions of the Department of State (“DOS”) and USCIS in issuing a revised October 2015 visa bulletin disallowed potentially tens of thousands of beneficiaries from applying for their adjustments of status (which would have granted the benefit of applying for EADs for their spouses and other derivative beneficiaries). Those who have already waited many years for an opportunity to truly set roots in the U.S. through a green card and work authorization for their families continue to wait.  In the meantime they must maintain valid H-1B statuses even though their employers have offered them permanent employment, and in the event they lose H-1B statuses, their H-4 family members will lose their status and they too will have to give up on the dream of becoming permanent members of the American way of life.

(This blog is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered as a substitute for legal advice.)

BALCA, What Have You Been Up to so Far in 2015?

I’m sure all PERM practitioners would agree that it’s always good (in fact necessary!) to check in with the Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals (BALCA). One never knows what issues BALCA will comment on next and as we navigate those often treacherous PERM waters, we need all the help we can get! Here are a couple of recent BALCA tidbits.

BALCA applies Matter of Symantec

In Computer Sciences Corporation, 2012-PER-00642 (Jul 9, 2015) the Certifying Officer (CO) denied the PERM on the grounds that the Employer’s inclusion of the language, “Willingness to travel; may require work from home office” in its recruitment advertisements posted on its website and on a job search website, constituted terms and conditions of employment that exceeded those listed on the ETA Form 9089 in violation of 20 C.F.R. §656.17(f)(6).

As background, employers recruiting under PERM for a professional position must complete the mandatory recruitment steps required by 656.17(e)(1)(i) as well as three additional recruitment steps provided in 656.17(e)(1)(ii).

The Employer’s advertisements posted on its website and on the job search website were in satisfaction of two of the three required additional recruitment steps. In reversing the CO’s decision, BALCA simply cited its en banc decision in Symantec Corp., 2011-PER-1856 (July 30, 2014) which I previously blogged about in greater detail here, and held that 656.17(f) does not apply to additional forms of recruitment. The Employer dodged a bullet here.

BALCA finds that Employer’s letter was within the record and can be considered on appeal

Once a PERM is denied, if the Employer files a motion for reconsideration, under 656.24(g)(2), this motion can only include (i) documentation that the Department actually received from the employer in response to a request from the CO to the employer; or (ii) documentation that the employer did not have an opportunity to present to the CO, but that existed at the time the PERM was filed and was maintained by the employer to support the PERM application in compliance with 656.10(f).

In New York City Department of Education, 2012-PER-02753 (June 19, 2015), the CO first denied the PERM application on the grounds that the Employer failed to provide a recruitment report that accurately accounted for the number of applicants for the job opportunity. The Employer filed a motion for reconsideration arguing that it properly accounted for all applicants. The CO, ignoring this request for reconsideration, issued a second denial letter, finding that the Employer did not provide job-related reasons for its rejection of US workers. Based on the documentation the Employer had submitted with the audit response, it appeared that US workers were rejected because they expressed disinterest in the position but the CO also reviewed the Employer’s interview notes that stated the candidates were available “immediately” or “soon.” The Employer filed a second motion for reconsideration explaining, not only that the CO cannot ignore the first motion and issue a second denial, but, moreover, that it had indeed lawfully rejected the US workers. Along with its motion the Employer provided a letter from its Executive Director explaining the company’s interview process and the fact that the Employer made the determination to reject the applicants after they expressed their disinterest at a second interview.

Since the Employer failed to properly explain its interview process and reasons for rejection in its audit response, BALCA found that the CO was justified in his denial of the case. However, in forwarding the case to BALCA, the CO acknowledged the letter that the Employer submitted along with its second motion explaining its hiring process. The CO did not refuse to accept it on the grounds that it was barred under 20 CFR 656.24(g)(2). Under that regulation, since the Employer’s had previously had a chance to submit this letter with its audit response but did not and since this letter was not documentation that existed at the time the PERM was filed, the CO would have been justified in refusing to accept it. But since the CO did not, the letter became part of the record that BALCA had to consider upon appeal. With the letter fully explaining the Employer’s interview process, BALCA had no choice but to find that the US workers had been lawfully rejected.

The take away from this case is how important it is to fully respond to an audit request. Had the CO rejected the Employer’s letter, the denial would have been upheld.  As BALCA pointed out, the CO’s audit letter very clearly requested a report that lists the date(s) the employer contacted the US worker; the dates the employer interviewed the US worker; the specific reasons the US worker was rejected; and information that documents the employer contacted the applicant(s). In its audit response, the Employer failed to provide this detailed information.

BALCA held that an original signature is not required on the recruitment report but the report must be signed

In another case involving New York City Department of Education, BALCA upheld the denial of three PERMs finding that the typed name of the Executive Deputy Director at the bottom of the recruitment report did not constitute a valid signature. The CO had denied the Employer’s PERM after audit for failure to submit a signed report as required under 656.17(g)(1). The Employer, in its request for reconsideration, explained that it had a physically signed recruitment report in its audit file and this report, due to administrative error, simply was not included in the audit response. The Employer alternatively argued that the regulations do not require a handwritten signature and the typed name of the Employer’s Deputy Executive Director was satisfactory.  The CO transferred the file to BALCA where each of the Employer’s arguments were shut down.

BALCA held that the fact that the Employer had a physically signed copy of the recruitment report speaks to the fact that the typed name on the bottom of the report submitted with the audit response was not intended to be a signature. The Employer argued that “original signatures” are not required. BALCA agreed that 656.17(g)(1) does not require an original signature but again stated that the typed name on the bottom of the report was not intended to be a signature – original or otherwise. The Employer argued that fundamental fairness ought to prevail as it had only failed to submit the physically signed report due to administrative error. BALCA held that the Employer had been given an opportunity to submit the signed report with the audit response and failed to do so. Finally, the Employer argued that each statement in the recruitment report was verified by other documentation submitted with the audit response and therefore the omission of the physically signed report was immaterial. BALCA, using one of its favorite quotes, held that “PERM is…an exacting process.” Essentially, because a signature is a regulatory requirement under 656.17(g)(1), then there must be a signature, no matter how unfair it may seem in light of all the facts of the case.

It’s really a shame whenever something so simple and unintended leads to a PERM denial or in this case, three PERM denials. But it highlights the importance of checking and rechecking an audit response before it is submitted and the importance of having, if possible, more than one pair of eyes review the response prior to submitting it. PERM can be a very unforgiving process.

BALCA says US workers can be lawfully rejected for “lack of experience”

In Presto Absorbent Products, Inc., 2012-PER-00775 (May 26, 2015), the CO denied the PERM finding that the Employer failed to provide lawful reasons for rejection. The Employer’s recruitment report stated that the Employer received eight resumes and that the applicants lacked experience. The Employer also stated that “All applicants were reviewed to determine if they would be able and qualified to perform the duties of the position within a reasonable amount of on-the-job training. All applicants were determined not to have been able and qualified for the position even with a reasonable amount of on-the-job training.” BALCA held that the regulation does not indicate a level of specificity beyond what the Employer provided and that “lack of experience” is a lawful reason for rejecting applicants.

While it is indeed heartening anytime BALCA errs on the side of reason, I don’t think PERM practitioners ought to rely too heavily on this decision and it’s always best to be as specific as possible in providing the reasons for rejection of US workers. For instance, instead of “lacks the technological experience” it would be clearer to state, “lacks experience in the required technologies such as C++, Java & PL/SQL” and instead of “lacks experience” it might be better to say “applicant possesses only 2 years of experience but the position requires 5 years of experience.” Even if it may appear silly to have to spell out the obvious, it might be valuable time and money saved by preventing an erroneous denial.

BALCA comments on newspaper circulation and distance to the area of intended employment

In Pentair Technical Products, 2011-PER-01754 (Aug. 5, 2015), the Employer used the San Antonio Express newspaper (the “Express-News”) for its first Sunday newspaper advertisement to recruit for a professional position in Pharr, Texas. The CO denied the PERM on the grounds that the Express-News is circulated in San Antonio, Texas and not in the area of intended employment – Pharr, Texas.

Under 20 CFR § 656.17(e)(1)(i)(B)(1), one option for an employer’s mandatory print advertisements for a professional position is “[p]lacing an advertisement on two different Sundays in the newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment most appropriate to the occupation and the workers likely to apply for the job opportunity and most likely to bring responses from able, willing, qualified, and available US workers.”

In a motion for reconsideration, the Employer argued that the Express-News is circulated in Pharr, Texas. The Employer argued that it chose the Express-News as it is the largest newspaper with general circulation in Pharr in order to reach the largest number of US workers. The Employer’s attorney also argued that he had personally contacted the Express-News and a representative at the newspaper had verified that the paper is circulated in Pharr, Texas. The CO nevertheless found that his denial was valid because San Antonio is four hours away from Pharr, well outside commuting distance and so the Employer had failed to advertise in the area of intended employment.

BALCA found that the issue of whether or not San Antonio is outside normal commuting distance from Pharr is relevant only if the Express-News were only available in San Antonio and not in Pharr. However, the record established that the Express-News is a newspaper of general circulation in Pharr. Accordingly, the fact that it is published in San Antonio is of no legal consequence.

BALCA pointed out that when a single area of intended employment is served by multiple newspapers, the CO ought not to be concerned with which paper reaches the most people but rather with whether the newspaper reached the intended audience and is a “newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment.” As an example, BALCA stated that if Trenton, NJ is the area of intended employment, whether The New York Post is more “appropriate” than The Trenton Times because it has more readers is irrelevant and there is nothing in the regulations that requires an employer to utilize the newspaper with the highest circulation in the area of intended employment or the newspaper published closest to the area of intended employment.

At first look, the case appears to be very encouraging. As long as the newspaper reaches its intended audience, all is well. Not so fast. This is another one of those cases where BALCA’s decision is expressly limited to the precise facts of the case. BALCA takes time to point out that in this case the CO did not deny the PERM based on a finding that the Employer had failed to utilize the “most appropriate” newspaper. The only issue raised in the denial was whether the Employer placed a newspaper advertisement in the area of intended employment so that is the only issue that BALCA has addressed. As to whether Express-News was the newspaper “most appropriate” to the occupation for which the Employer was recruiting, we will never know.

It can be very difficult for employers to decide where to advertise. This case answers the question of whether it is permissible to advertise in The New York Times for a position in New Jersey. Yes, it is permissible because The New York Times is a newspaper of general circulation in New Jersey. But this case does not provide any guidelines for an employer struggling to determine which newspaper is “most appropriate.” For instance, in recruiting for a professional position in New York City, how does an employer decide between The New York Post vs. The New York Times? It is significantly more expensive to advertise in The New York Times and so an employer may not want to do that unless that newspaper is the only newspaper that would be permissible under the regulations. What statistics would that employer need to examine? Should that employer just assume that The New York Times is the newspaper most read by professionals and therefore The New York Times will always be “most appropriate” in recruiting for any professional position? In a footnote, BALCA mentioned that the Employer utilized The Monitor as the newspaper for the second Sunday advertisement and that this was not challenged by the CO. BALCA pointed out that the regulations refer to “newspaper” in the singular in requiring advertisements to be placed “in the newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment.” BALCA commented that the regulations do not appear to contemplate a situation where more than one newspaper is circulated in the area of intended employment and the newspapers are equally appropriate given the employment at issue and the workers likely to apply for the job. BALCA conveniently declined to comment on that issue. So while it is great that employers can choose any newspaper as long as it is one of general circulation in the area of intended employment, employers need to remain concerned about ensuring that the paper chosen is the “most appropriate” paper and it’s probably just best to use the same paper for both of the Sunday ads.

These recent cases highlight the “little” things that can lead to a big denial of a PERM. Just reading these cases creates heightened awareness of potential issues and naturally leads to better and more focused reviews of documentation prepared during the PERM process and documentation submitted to the Department of Labor.