Breakthrough in Matter of V-S-G- Inc.: AC21 Beneficiaries Given Opportunity to Be Heard When I-140 is Revoked

The law generally recognizes that petitioners control their visa petitions. See 8 CFR 103.2(a)(3).  A beneficiary cannot force a petitioner to pursue or maintain a visa petition. Therefore, USCIS communicates only with petitioners, not the beneficiaries, with respect to notifications such as Requests for Evidence, approvals, and even a Notice of Intent to Revoke (NOIR) of an approved petition. A beneficiary is not considered an affected party with legal standing with respect to filing appeals and motions. See 8 CFR 103.3(a)(1)(iii)(B).

However, the traditional distinction between a petitioner, beneficiary and affected party breaks down when the law allows the beneficiary to leave the original petitioner and port to a same or similar job under INA 204(j) that was enacted via the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 (AC21). Although the intent of the original employer who filed the petition to employ the beneficiary may cease to exist, the original petition still remains valid when the beneficiary ports to a same or similar job with a new employer.

The Appeals Administrative Office (AAO) has adopted Matter of V-S-G- Inc., Adopted Decision 2017-06 (AAO Nov. 11, 2017), which now  recognizes that beneficiaries who have ported to a same or similar to the job under INA 204(j) are entitled to receive notices pertaining to the potential revocation of their approved employment-based I-140 visa petition. The USCIS also issued accompanying guidance in the form of a Policy Memorandum on November 11, 2017.  We previously advocated for this outcome here, here and here, and welcome the AAO’s recognition that beneficiaries who have ported are entitled to notification and the opportunity to be heard when their approved I-140 petitions are in jeopardy.

The ability for a foreign national worker to move to a new job is crucial when there is a delay in the adjudication of the I-485 application for adjustment of status. If an I-485 application has been pending for more than 180 days, under INA 204(j), the I-140 petition shall remain valid with respect to a new job if it is in the same or a similar occupational classification as the job for which the petition was filed. Some I-485 applications have been pending for more than a decade, such as those in the class of July 2007, after the employment second (EB-2) and third preferences (EB-3) for India became current and then retrogressed. Even in the Trump era, I-485 applications  filed are likely to remain pending for over 180 days as the beneficiary will be scheduled for personal interviews at the local USCIS office.   This means that so long as the worker “ports” to a same or similar job, the validity of the underlying labor certification and the I-140 petition is kept intact. The new employer is not required to restart the green card process on behalf of this worker who is the beneficiary of the approved I-140 petition filed by the former employer. INA 204(j) job portability is a great blessing, although it can also have pitfalls. If the USCIS chooses to revoke the already approved I-140 petition because it suspects that the employer committed fraud, but the worker has now moved onto a new job, who should get notice of the USCIS’s intent to revoke?

Matter of V-S-G-Inc. recognizes that a beneficiary who has ported is within the statute’s zone of interests following the Supreme Court’s decision in Lexmark Int’l Inc. v. Static Control Components, which held that a plaintiff has the ability to sue when his or her claim is within the zone of interests a statute or regulation protects.    Courts have agreed that the original employer should not be the exclusive party receiving notice when the worker has ported to a new employer. Beneficiaries who have ported to new employers fall within INA 204(j)’s zone of interests and have standing to participate in visa revocation proceedings. See Mantena v. Johnson and Kurupati v. USCIS.  The original employer no longer has any stake in the process and may also be antagonistic toward the beneficiary of the I-140 petition who has already left the employment many years ago. The beneficiary in addition to porting off the I-140 petition provided the adjustment application has been pending for 180 or more days, can also recapture the priority date of the original I-140 and apply it to a new I-140 petition filed by the new employer. Thus, a worker who was sponsored by the original employer in the EB-3 can potentially re-boot into EB-2 through a new employer, and recapture the priority date applicable to the original I-140 petition. While the EB-2 may also be backlogged for India, it is not as dire as the EB-3. If the USCIS chooses to revoke the original I-140 petition, not only will the I-485 adjustment application be in jeopardy, but also the recaptured priority date, thus setting back the foreign worker by many years in the EB-3 green card backlog. It is thus imperative that someone other than the original employer get notification of the I-140 petition who will have no interest in challenging it, and may have also possibly gone out of business.

The AAO in Matter of V-S-G- while endorsing the holdings in Mantena v. Johnson and Kurupati v. USCIS, disagreed with the Seventh Circuit’s holding in in Musunuru v. Lynch. In Musunuru, while recognizing the beneficiary of an approved I-140 petition as an affected party,   adamantly held that the beneficiary’s current employer should get notice of the revocation. This is what the Seventh Circuit in Musunuru stated:

We so hold because Congress intends for a nonimmigrant worker’s new employer to adopt the visa petition filed by his old employer when the worker changes employers under the statutory portability provision. Thus, to give effect to Congress’s intention, the new employer must be treated as the de facto petitioner for the old employer’s visa petition. As the de facto petitioner, the new employer is entitled under the regulations to pre-revocation notice and an opportunity to respond, as well as to administratively challenge a revocation decision.

In a prior blog, I had argued against the holding in Musumuru that there is nothing in INA 204(j) that makes the new employer the de facto petitioner. Once the foreign national worker ports under INA 204(j), the pending green card process ought to belong to him or her. The whole idea of providing job mobility to workers caught in the EB backlog is to allow them to easily find a new employer in a same or similar field, on the strength of an employment authorization document (EAD) ensuing from the pending I-485 application, and not to oblige the new employer to adopt the old petition. This could potentially pose an obstacle to much needed job mobility for the beleaguered EB worker who is trapped in the backlog.

I am glad that the AAO in Matter of V-S-G- agrees with this position. The AAO correctly noted, “The new employer did not pay for the filing, is not responsible for maintaining the petition, is not liable for the original petitioner’s compliance or malfeasance associated with it, and cannot withdraw the petition if it no longer requires the beneficiary’s services. Nor can the new employer prevent the beneficiary from porting to yet another employer (as happened here).” The fact that the new employer has to sign an I-485J Supplement J does not give it more interests in the original employer’s petition. The new employer would in any event need to provide a letter confirming the new job offer. Form I-485J merely captures the same information that the new employer would provide in a letter relating to the job offer.

While the outcome in Matter of V-S-G- is positive for beneficiaries who have ported and who are entitled to notification, it did not go far enough. Matter of V-S-G- only recognized the beneficiary as an affected party in cases where he or she has exercised portability under INA 204(j). The AAO disagreed with the Sixth Circuit’s holding in Patel v. USCIS, which held that the beneficiary of an I-140 petition even outside the porting context had standing because he or she suffered injury that was traceable to the USICS, namely, the loss of an opportunity to become a permanent resident. INA 203(b), according to the Sixth Circuit in Patel, makes the visa available directly to the immigrant, and not the employer, which suggests that Congress gave the beneficiary a stake in the outcome of the I-140. While a pending I-485 may bolster the beneficiary’s interest in an I-140, it is not necessary. There exist old decisions that provided standing to the beneficiary of a labor certification, in the absence of a subsequent I-140 petition or an I-485 adjustment of status application. In Ramirez v. Reich,  the DC Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the non-citizen’s standing to sue, but then denied the appeal since the employer’s participation in the appeal of a labor certification denial was essential. While the holding in Ramirez was contradictory, as it recognized the standing of the non-citizen but turned down the appeal due to the lack of participation of the employer, the employer’s essentiality may have been obviated if the employer had indicated that the job offer was still available. Still, an even older 1984 case, Gladysz v. Donovan,  provides further basis for non-citizen standing even if there is no pending I-485 application. In Gladysz, the non-citizen sought judicial review after the employer’s labor certification had been denied, rather than challenged his ability to seek administrative review, and the court agreed that the plaintiff had standing as he was within the zone of interests protected under the Administrative Procedures Act.

The final Retention of EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 Immigrant Workers and Program Improvements Affecting High-Skilled Workers rule (“High Skilled Worker Rule”), which took effect on January 17, 2017, did not address notice and standing for I-140 beneficiaries under INA 204(j). Matter of V-S-G- now fills this gap. 8 CFR 205.1(b) and 205.2(b) and (c), which provide that automatic and notice-based revocations go solely to the petitioner, are no longer applicable when beneficiaries have pending I-485 applications under INA 204(j). The USCIS has instructed that revocation notices be sent to both the petitioner and beneficiary. The USCIS, however, does caution that when sending notification, certain non-public information cannot be shared with both parties such as the petitioner’s non-public financial information, including federal tax returns or information about I-140s being filed on behalf of multiple beneficiaries. Under these circumstances, the beneficiary is supposed to get more generalized information. Whether this will be advantageous to the beneficiary who is provided modified information for purposes of rebutting an intention to revoke an I-140 petition remains to be seen. However, it would be a ground for appeal to the beneficiary whose I-140 was denied because he or she did not get sufficient information in order to provide an effective rebuttal. Still, the examples given in the Policy Memorandum under which the USCIS can revoke an approved I-140 are broad and under the following headings: material error in approving the petition; fraud or willful misrepresentation of material fact; lack of a bona fide job offer; adverse new information (from a site visit or adjustment interview; and invalidation of a labor certification. One can see this as an invitation for USCIS examiners to issue more NOIRs of approved I-140 petitions especially under the Trump administration, which has sought to curb or slow down legal immigration by imposing mandatory adjustment interviews and increasing site visits.

Matter of V-S-G and the accompanying policy guidance only deal with notification to beneficiaries who have approved I-140 petitions, which the USCIS seeks to revoke. It does not deal with beneficiaries who are porting off unadjudicated I-140 petitions and concurrently filed pending I-485 applications. 8 CFR 245.25 of the High Skilled Worker Rule clarifies and codifies long standing policies regarding how a beneficiary may port under INA 204(j). With respect to porting off an unadjudicated I-140 petition, 8 CFR 245.25(a)(2)(ii)(B) clearly provides for this by stating that the I-140 must still ultimately be approved by demonstrating that it was approvable at the time of filing and until the I-485 was pending for 180 days. The rule insists that it must still be demonstrated that the original petitioner had the ability to pay the proffered wage at the time of filing the I-140 petition, but the original petitioner need not continue to show its ability to pay after filing and until the beneficiary obtains permanent residency. This makes sense since once the beneficiary has ported, the original petitioning employer should not be required to demonstrate its continued ability to pay the proffered wage after the filing of the I-140 petition and once the 180 days since the filing of the I-485 have passed.

Unfortunately, Matter of V-S-G- and the accompanying guidance fail to instruct USCIS on how to notify beneficiaries when the I-140 has not yet been approved, but the beneficiary has exercised portability under INA 204(j). Pursuant to Matter of V-S-G, the beneficiary has a legitimate interest in an unadjudicated I-140 too, and must be notified through a Request for Evidence (RFE) that is usually only sent to the employer.  Accordingly, beneficiaries who have ported off an unadjudicated I-140 must insist on being notified regarding any RFE that may be sent to the employer and to be given the opportunity to respond to the RFE. If the relationship has not become antagonistic, the original employer may still respond to the RFE, even if the employer does not intend to employ the beneficiary upon acquiring permanent residency, and notify the USCIS that the beneficiary has or may be porting under 204(j) but is seeing to have the I-140 approved pursuant to 8 CFR 245.25(a)(2)(ii)(B). If the original employer has decided to not respond to the RFE, the USCIS must still give the beneficiary an opportunity to respond to the RFE in the same was as it has been instructed to do under Matter of  V-S-G- with regards to an NOIR of an approved I-140 petition.

Beneficiaries have not been provided the same rights as employers in the I-140 petitioning process. Matter of V-S-G- following court decisions now recognize that an AC 21 beneficiary must be given an opportunity to be heard when the approved I-140 petition is in jeopardy. At the same time, the guidance accompanying Matter of V-S-G- could also incentivize USCIS officers to issue more NOIRs of approved I-140 petitions, although such notices would have to be provided to the original petitioner and to the beneficiary. While this is a significant first step, beneficiaries of employer-filed petitions must continue to advance their legitimate right to be heard even in other contexts, such as when the I-140 is still not yet approved or even when there is no pending I-485 application under INA 204(j).


Matter of Z-A-, Inc.: Recognizing The Global Role Of The L-1A Manager In A Globalized World

Despite the shrill rejection of globalization in the current presidential election cycle, the Appeals Administrative Office (AAO) has thankfully bucked the trend. It recently designated Matter of Z-A- Inc. as an “Adopted Decision, “which means that such a decision “establishes policy guidance that applies to and binds all USCIS employees. USCIS directs its personnel to follow the reasoning in these decisions in similar cases.”

Under Matter of Z-A-, Inc., designated as an Adopted Decision since April 14, 2016, an L-1A intra-company manager who primarily manages an essential function can also be supported by personnel outside the United States within an international organization. A USCIS officer can no longer deny L-1A classification to such a manager because he or she is not supported by personnel within the United States.  This decision recognizes that we operate in a global world, and that an organization may rely on its resources outside the United States to produce products or provide services.

The foreign national manager seeking an L-1A visa extension in Matter of Z-A-, Inc. was the President and Chief Operating Officer of the US petitioning entity whose parent company was in Japan. His duties included: directing and managing the Petitioner’s financial, legal, trade, administrative, and sales activities; establishing financial and budgetary plans and goals; reviewing and monitoring sales activities performed by the Petitioner’s sales manager; liaising with the parent company; and interacting with customers and outside service providers. The Petitioner in the US only employed a sales manager and an administrative specialist. However, eight staff members within the parent company’s headquarters in Japan also exclusively supported the work of this manager.

The key issue is whether the Petitioner established that this manager would be employed in a qualifying “managerial capacity” pursuant to INA 101(a)(44)(A). The Petitioner asserted that this manager would manage an essential function of the organization, which is permitted under the statute, as opposed to managing other personnel. A functional manager under the L-1A visa classification must primarily manager as opposed to perform the essential function, and must also be senior in the organizational hierarchy. An employee who primarily performs the tasks necessary to produce a product or a service is not considered to be employed in primarily a managerial or executive capacity. See Brazil Quality Stones, Inc. v. Chertoff,  531 F.3d 1063 (9th Cir. 2008).

The L-1A visa classification does not require the organization to employ hundreds of people. Rather, the USCIS is required to take into account the reasonable needs of the organization as a whole, including any related entities within the organization, giving consideration to the organization’s overall purpose and stage of development. See INA 101(a)(44)(C). The AAO found that since Congress created the L-1A classification to “eliminate problems…..faced by American companies having offices abroad in transferring key personnel freely within the organization,” it was reasonable for a petitioner to assert that its organizational needs include those of its related foreign components.

In the instant case, the request to extend L-1A status was denied by USCIS Service Center Director on the ground that only a small number of employees worked in the United States, who would support the manager and relieve him from performing the duties of the function. It did not address the Petitioner’s substantial evidence relating to the staff that was located at the parent entity in Japan who also supported the manager in primarily managing the essential function of the organization. The AAO reversed the Service Center’s decision on this ground by noting:

“Here the record shows that the Beneficiary, in his role as Vice President, will continue to rely on the support of the eight staff members in Japan and two employees in the United States to accomplish non-managerial duties, and that the purpose of his transfer is to oversee the short-term and long-term expansion of the Petitioner’s presence in what is a new market. Given the overall purpose of the organization and the organization’s stage of development, the Petitioner has established a reasonable need for a senior-level employee to manage the essential function of developing its brands and presence in the United States, notwithstanding that the Petitioner employs directly only two other employees in the United States.

While the Beneficiary may be required to perform some operational or administrative tasks from time to time, the Petitioner has established by a preponderance of evidence that the Beneficiary will primarily manage an essential function, while day-to-day, non-managerial tasks will be performed by a combined staff of 10 employees of the Petitioner and its parent company, located in the United States and Japan, respectively.”

In a globalized world, where people are easily connected to each other by the internet, it is no longer necessary for a manager to rely on personnel in one location, namely in the United States. It is now common for teams of personnel within one organization to easily collaborate across different countries to produce a product or provide a service using cloud technology and even able to video conference on one’s smart phone through Skype or FaceTime.  The fact that the world is flat, as famously coined by Tom Friedman, is no longer a novelty but a given in a world that has become even more hyper connected since.  Despite unrealistic calls by politicians to have operations exclusively in America, the reality is that US businesses can thrive, compete, prosper, create new jobs and benefit the American consumer through international operations, made that much easier with rapidly evolving internet technology.

Until the AAO designated Matter of Z-A- , Inc. as an Adopted Decision, it was quite common to receive an objection from the USCIS that the persons supporting the L-1A manager were not in the United States, and would therefore not count in evaluating whether this individual would be performing in primarily a managerial capacity. This sort of reasoning was not consistent with the way businesses operate today, and  put the United States at a distinct competitive disadvantage if its corporations could not quickly bring in key personnel, who in turn would be supported by resources in foreign countries. Even if it was logical and commonsensical for a manager to qualify for an L-1A on this obvious basis, some USCIS officers obstructively still denied the L-1A petition. After Matter of Z-A- Inc.’s elevation to an Adopted Decision, it now firmly binds all employees of the USCIS even if their worldview may be colored by the clarion calls of politicians who reject globalization.  In the event that a USCIS employee still goes rogue and denies the L-1A petition on such a baseless ground, it certainly provides strong grounds for an appeal.


By  Cyrus D. Mehta

The AAO decision in Matter of Simeio Solutions, LLC,  26 I&N Dec. 542 (AAO 2015) has already caused headaches as it will make it more costly and burdensome for employers who hire H-1B workers. An overview of the AAO decision can be found at AAO Firmly Tethers H-1B Workers To The LCA Like A Dog Is To A Leash. In Matter of Simeio, the AAO concluded that changes in the beneficiary’s places of employment, resulting in the obtaining of a new Labor Condition Application (LCA) constituted a material change to the terms and conditions of employment as specified in the original petition,  thus necessitating the filing of an amended petition. 
Every time an H-1B worker moves to a location not covered in the LCA, the employer will have to file an amended petition. The filing of an amended H-1B petition will incur additional costs for an employer. At an April 30, 2015 DHS Ombudsman call on the AAO decision,  it was estimated that if an employer moves 50 workers three times a year, that would be 150 amended petitions resulting in half a million dollars in legal fees and costs.   It will also give a right to the USCIS to adjudicate the H-1B petition as no deference is given to a prior approval when there is a material change in the employment. It is also a fact that the USCIS Vermont Service Center and California Service Center do not always apply consistent standards when adjudicating H-1B petitions. If the Vermont Service Center approved an H-1B petition, and the worker will be assigned to a work location within the jurisdiction of the California Service Center,  there is a likelihood that the amended H-1B petition will be adjudicated under a stricter standard, resulting in a Request for Evidence and even a denial. 
Prior to Simeio Solutions, employers relied on informal USCIS guidance indicating that so long as a new LCA was obtained prior to placing an H-1B worker at a new worksite, an amended H-1B petition was not required. See Letter from Efren Hernandez III, Dir., Bus. And Trade Branch, USCIS, to Lynn Shotwell, Am. Council on int’l Pers., Inc. (October 23, 2003). The AAO has now explicitly stated in Simeio Solutions, footnote 7, that the Hernandez guidance has been superseded. Employers who relied on the prior guidance who file amended H-1B petitions to comply with Simeio Solutions should not be penalized for not previously filing an amended H-1B petition by deeming that the H-1B worker fell out of status. 
When is an amended petition not legally required even after Simeio Solutions
Arguably, if an H-1B worker is being moved to a new job location within the same area of intended employment, a new LCA is not required and nor will an H-1B amendment be required. The original LCA should still be posted in the new work location within the same area of intended employment. So a move to a new job location within New York City would not trigger a new LCA, although the previously obtained LCA would need to be posted at the new work location. This could happen if an entire office moved from one location to another within NYC, or even if the H-1B worker moved from one client site to another within NYC.
There is also nothing in the law and regulations that require an employer to first obtain an approval of the amended petition prior to placing a worker there. Footnote 11 in the Simeio decision suggests that the new LCA, along with the amended H-1B petition, must be submitted, before the beneficiary would be permitted to begin working in the new place of employment. It does not suggest that the amended H-1B petition has to be approved before the worker would be permitted to work. Still, there is an exception in the DOL regulations to immediately filing a new LCA, and by corollary an amended H-1B petition, even when an H-1B worker is moved to a new location. Employers may take advantage of the short term placement exception at 20 CFR 655.735. Under the short term placement exception, an employer may under certain circumstances place an H-1B worker at a new job location for up to 30 days, and in some cases 60 days (where the worker is still based at the original location), without obtaining a new LCA. Thus, when an employer needs to urgently transfer an H-1B worker to a new location, it can do so under the short term placement exception without needing to also immediately file an amended H-1B petition. This exception is limited, though, since if the H-1B worker is placed at the new location for more than the 30 or 60 days, the employer needs to obtain a new LCA and also file an amended H-1B petition. An employer also cannot use the short term placement exception if there is already an existing LCA at that location. 

While readers should review the short term placement rule in its entirety, an employer who wishes to take advantage of this rule must:

(i) Continue to pay such worker(s) the required wage (based on the prevailing wage at such worker’s(s’) permanent worksite, or the employer’s actual wage, whichever is higher); 

(ii) Pay such worker(s) the actual cost of lodging (for both workdays and non-workdays); and 

(iii) Pay such worker(s) the actual cost of travel, meals and incidental or miscellaneous expenses (for both workdays and non-workdays). 

Finally, if an H-1B worker is placed at a location that is considered a non-worksite under 20 CFR 655.715, which does not trigger an LCA,  the AAO decision is also inapplicable. Non-worksites include locations where employee developmental activity is conducted such as management conferences, staff seminars, etc. Non-worksites may also include locations where little time is spent by the employee at anyone location, and where the worker’s job is “peripatetic in nature.” They may also include situations where the H-1B worker’s job is spent at one location but where the worker occasionally travels for short periods to other locations  “on a casual, short-term basis, which can be recurring but not excessive (i.e., not exceeding five consecutive workdays for any one visit by a peripatetic worker, or 10 consecutive workdays for any one visit by a worker who spends most work time at one location and travels occasionally to other locations).” 20 CFR 655.715 provides the following examples of non-worksites, although readers are well advised to read the rule in its entirety:

A computer engineer sent out to customer locations to “troubleshoot” complaints regarding software malfunctions; a sales representative making calls on prospective customers or established customers within a “home office” sales territory; a manager monitoring the performance of out-stationed employees; an auditor providing advice or conducting reviews at customer facilities; a physical therapist providing services to patients in their homes within an area of employment; an individual making a court appearance; an individual lunching with a customer representative at a restaurant; or an individual conducting research at a library.

The regulation also provides the following examples of “worksites” that would trigger a new LCA, and now under Simeio, an amended H-1B petition: 

A computer engineer who works on projects or accounts at different locations for weeks or months at a time; a sales representative assigned on a continuing basis in an area away from his/her “home office;” an auditor who works for extended periods at the customer’s offices; a physical therapist who “fills in” for full-time employees of health care facilities for extended periods; or a physical therapist who works for a contractor whose business is to provide staffing on an “as needed” basis at hospitals, nursing homes, or clinics. 

Employers will soon feel the brunt of the AAO decision as they start moving H-1B workers, which in some industries like IT, accounting and management consulting is the norm. The exceptions to filing an amended H-1B petition while useful are still limited. As employers feel overly burdened by the AAO decision, they may consider resorting to litigation as the AAO has created a new rule without going through the appropriate notice and comment procedure under the Administrative Procedure Act.  According to the AAO, “[i]f an employer does not submit the LCA to USCIS in support of a new or amended H-1B petition, the process is incomplete and the LCA is not certified to the Secretary of Homeland Security.” The AAO cites INA 101(a)(15)(H)(i)(b), 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(i)B)(1) and 20 CFR 655.700(b) to support its position, but none of these provisions seem to suggest that an LCA obtained after an H-1B petition has already been submitted is not valid if it is “not certified to the Secretary of Homeland Security.”   The DOL certifies the LCA. There is no separate process where the DOL also has to certify the LCA to the Secretary of Homeland Security. The AAO’s invention of a new rule relating to the validity of the LCA is also ripe for litigation. Finally,  an H-1B worker should not found to be in violation of status for failure to file an amended H-1B petition prior to Simeio. If the USCIS begins to retroactively apply Simeio so as to penalize employers and H-1B workers, this too would be ripe for federal court litigation.


Waiving Goodbye to Unappealable Decisions: Indirect AAO Jurisdiction, or Why Having Your Appeal Dismissed Can Sometimes be a Good Thing

The USCIS Administrative Appeals Office, or AAO, has administrative appellate jurisdiction over a wide variety of USCIS decisions that are not appealable to the Board of Immigration Appeals.  This jurisdiction is primarily set forth in a regulatory list that has been absent from the Code of Federal Regulations since 2003, but was incorporated by reference that year into DHS Delegation 0150.1.  Pursuant to that delegation, as manyAAOdecisionsstate, the AAO exercises appellate jurisdiction over the matters described at 8 C.F.R. 103.1(f)(3)(iii) as in effect on February 28, 2003.  (It has been previously pointed out by attorney Matt Cameron that a currently nonexistent jurisdictional regulation is an undesirable state of affairs for an appellate body; USCIS recently indicated in a July 2013 Policy Memorandum regarding certification of decisions that DHS intends to replace the list in the regulations in a future rulemaking.)

The regulatory list of applications over which the AAO has jurisdiction does not include Form I-485 applications for adjustment of status, with a minor exception relating to applications based on a marriage entered into during removal proceedings denied for failure to meet the bona fide marriage exemption under INA §245(e).  Thus, it would appear that the AAO would not have appellate jurisdiction over denials of adjustment applications, and that one’s sole administrative recourse if an adjustment application is denied would be to seek review before an immigration judge in removal proceedings, as is generally permitted (except for certain arriving aliens) by 8 C.F.R. §1245.2(a)(5)(ii).  But appearances can be deceiving.

Many, although not all, of the grounds for denial of an adjustment application are potentially subject to waiver under appropriate conditions.  If an application is denied because the applicant was found inadmissible under INA §212(a)(2)(A)(i) due to conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude (“CIMT”), for example, a waiver can be sought under INA §212(h) if either the criminal conduct took place more than 15 years ago, or the applicant can attempt to demonstrate that the applicant’s U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse, parent, son or daughter would face extreme hardship if the applicant were not admitted.  Similarly, one who is found inadmissible under INA §212(a)(6)(C)(i) due to fraud or willful misrepresentation (not involving a false claim to U.S. citizenship taking place after September 30, 1996) can seek a waiver of inadmissibility under INA §212(i) based on extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse or parent.  Various other grounds of inadmissibility are waiveable as well.

While the AAO does not have jurisdiction directly over the denial of an adjustment application, the AAO does have jurisdiction over the denial of most waiver applications.  And in the AAO’s view, appellate jurisdiction to determine whether someone should have been granted a waiver necessarily includes jurisdiction to decide whether that applicant even needed a waiver in the first place.  If the AAO finds that a waiver was unnecessary, it will dismiss the waiver appeal and remand for further processing of the adjustment application.  That is, it will decide on appeal that the applicant was not, in fact, inadmissible, and thus in effect will have reviewed the denial of the underlying adjustment application even without regard to whether a waiver would be justified if one were indeed necessary.  Although this process does not appear to be documented in any precedential AAO decision, comparatively few AAO precedent decisions of any sort having been published, this exercise of indirect appellate jurisdiction by the AAO occurs with some frequency in non-precedential, “unpublished” decisions that have been made available online (generally by USCIS itself, or occasionally by other sources).

Dismissal of a waiver appeal as moot can occur in the context of a §212(h) waiver, for example, where the AAO finds that the applicant’s conviction was not for a CIMT (see also these additional decisionsfrom 2012; 2010; February, March, Apriland June of 2009; 2008; and 2007).  Even if the applicant does have a CIMT conviction, that AAO may conclude that the applicant’s only conviction for a CIMT qualifies for the petty offense exception under INA §212(a)(2)(A)(ii)(II) and thus does not give rise to inadmissibility (see also these decisions along the same lines from Januaryand Marchof 2009, 2008, and 2006).  Dismissal of a §212(h) waiver application as moot can also occur when the AAO finds that the applicant was not convicted of a crime at all given that the official disposition of a charge was a “Nolle prosequi, or that an applicant who was not convicted of a crime had not given a valid admission to the elements of a crime, in accordance with the procedural safeguards required by precedent, so as to give rise to inadmissibility in the absence of a conviction.  Outside the CIMT context, as well, the AAO can dismiss a §212(h) waiver appeal as moot upon a finding that no waiver is needed, such as when someone who was thought to have a waiveable conviction involving 30 grams or less of marijuana successfully points out on appeal that disorderly conduct under a statute not mentioning drugs is not an offense relating to a controlled substance.

In the context of a denial based on inadmissibility for fraud or misrepresentation, the AAO can dismiss an appeal from the denial of a §212(i) waiver as moot if it finds that the misrepresentation was not material (see also these decisions from 2010, 2009and 2007), or that an applicant who was victimized by others submitting a fraudulent application on his behalf without his knowledge did not make a willful misrepresentation, or that any misrepresentation was the subject of a timely retraction (see also this decision from 2006).  AAO dismissal of a §212(i) waiver appeal as moot can also be used to vindicate the legal principle that presenting a false Form I-94 or similar false documentation to an employer to obtain employment does not give rise to inadmissibility under §212(a)(6)(C)(i), and neither does procuring false immigration documentation from a private individual more generally, because a misrepresentation under 212(a)(6)(C)(i) must be made to an authorized U.S. government official.  Finally, AAO dismissal of a §212(i) waiver appeal as moot can occur where the only alleged misrepresentation occurred in the context of a legalization program which is subject to statutory confidentiality protection, such as the SAW (Special Agricultural Worker) program under INA §210 or a LULAC late legalization application or other application under INA §245A, and therefore any such misrepresentation cannot be the basis of inadmissibility under §212(a)(6)(C)(i) because of the confidentiality protection.

This sort of indirect AAO jurisdiction can also be used to correct errors regarding inadmissibility for unlawful presence under INA §212(a)(9)(B), if a waiver application is filed under INA §212(a)(9)(B)(v).  For example, in a 2012 decision involving an applicant who was admitted for duration of status (D/S) and had been incorrectly found to have accrued unlawful presence after failing to maintain status even absent any finding of such by USCIS or an immigration judge, contrary to the 2009 Neufeld/Scialabba/Chang USCIS consolidated guidance memorandum on unlawful presence, the AAO dismissed the appeal as moot upon finding that the applicant was not, in fact, inadmissible under §212(a)(9)(B).

The AAO’s indirect appellate jurisdiction over inadmissibility determinations has even been exercised where the initial inadmissibility determination was made not by a USCIS officer in the context of an application for adjustment of status, but by a Department of State consular officer in the context of a consular application for an immigrant visa.  In a 2009 decision, the AAO dismissed as moot an appeal from the denial of a §212(h) waiver by the Officer in Charge (OIC) in Manila, holding that the applicant did not require a waiver because the applicant’s admission to an examining physician that he had used marijuana in the past did not give rise to inadmissibility, and that Pazcoguin v. Radcliffe, 292 F.3d 1209 (9th Cir. 2002) (finding a valid admission to the elements of a crime resulting in inadmissibility under similar circumstances) did not apply because the applicant and the office that made the decision were located in the Philippines rather than within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit.  The AAO ordered “the matter returned to the OIC for further processing of the immigrant visa application.” It explained the source of its authority in this context as follows:

The Secretary of Homeland Security (and by delegation, the AAO) has final responsibility over guidance to consular officers concerning inadmissibility for visa applicants. See Memorandum of Understanding Between Secretaries of State and Homeland Security Concerning Implementation of Section 428 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, issued September 30, 2003, at 3.

Matter of X- (AAO June 17, 2009), at 4.

Nor was that Manila case an isolated exception, although the detailed explanation of the source of the AAO’s authority in the consular context that was contained in that decision is rarer that the exercise of the authority itself.  The AAO has also dismissed as moot an appeal of the denial of an application for a §212(h) waiver by the Mexico City district director in the case of an applicant who sought an immigrant visa in the Dominican Republic and had been convicted of a firearms offense which would properly give rise to deportability but not inadmissibility; dismissed an appeal from a decision of the Frankfurt, Germany OIC denying a §212(h) waiver for an applicant whom the AAO determined had not been convicted of a CIMT; dismissed an appeal from a decision of the Vienna, Austria OIC denying a §212(h) waiver for an applicant the AAO found had only been subject to juvenile delinquency proceedings not giving rise to a conviction for immigration purposes under Matter of Devison-Charles, 22 I&N Dec. 1362 (BIA 2001); and dismissed another appeal from a decision of the Vienna OIC where the AAO found that the applicant’s conviction qualified for the petty offense exception.  Indeed, the AAO has exercised its indirect appellate jurisdiction over a consular inadmissibility determination in at least one appeal from a decision of the Mexico City district director where “the applicant did not appear to contest the district director’s determination of inadmissibility” but the AAO found that neither of the crimes of which the applicant had been convicted was a CIMT.  The AAO’s indirect appellate jurisdiction has also been exercised in a case coming from the New Delhi, India OIC where an applicant disputed his date of departure from the United States which started the running of the ten-year bar, and the AAO found that the applicant’s actual departure had been more than ten years prior and thus no §212(a)(9)(B)(v) waiver was required.

Perhaps most interestingly, it appears that the AAO will even exercise its indirect appellate jurisdiction over inadmissibility determinations in some cases where the applicant has failed to demonstrate prima facie eligibility for the relevant waiver, although the only examples that this author have been able to find of this involve the AAO’s indirect jurisdiction over USCIS adjustment denials rather than consular-processing of an immigrant visa.  In a 2006 decision, an applicant who had not provided any evidence that his wife was a Lawful Permanent Resident who could serve as a qualifying relative for either a §212(i) waiver or a §212(a)(9)(B)(v) waiver was found not to be inadmissible because he had made a timely retraction of any misrepresentation, and had accrued no unlawful presence due to last departing the United States in 1989.  In a 2009 decision, an applicant who had pled guilty to hiring undocumented workers, and who had been found inadmissible under INA §212(a)(6)(E)(i) for alien smuggling and appealed the denial of his application for a waiver of inadmissibility under INA §212(d)(11), was found not inadmissible by the AAO, which withdrew the district director’s contrary finding—even though the district director had found that the applicant did not meet the requirements of §212(d)(11), and seems very likely to have been right about that, since §212(d)(11)applies only to an applicant who “has encouraged, induced, assisted, abetted, or aided only an individual who at the time of the offense was the alien’s spouse, parent, son, or daughter (and no other individual) to enter the United States in violation of law.”  And in 2010, the AAO declared moot a waiver application under INA §212(g) by an individual infected with HIV who apparently had not established any relationship with a qualifying relative, on the ground that in January 2010 the Centers for Disease Control had removed HIV from the official list of communicable diseases of public health significance, and therefore HIV infection was no longer a ground of inadmissibility.  Some potentially difficult ethical and practical questions would need to be resolved before deliberately filing a waiver application on behalf of an applicant ineligible for such waiver in order to obtain AAO review of whether the applicant was inadmissible at all, but it is at least a possibility worthy of further analysis.

So when an application for adjustment of status, or even for a consular-processed immigrant visa, is denied, it is important to keep in mind that an appeal may be available even if it does not appear so at first glance, and that establishing the necessary hardship to a qualifying relative to support a waiver application is not necessarily the only way to win the case.  If a waiver of the ground upon which the denial was based is at least theoretically available, so as to support AAO jurisdiction over the denial of that waiver, then one can leverage the waiver to seek AAO review of whether a waiver was necessary in the first place.


U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) issued a binding precedent decision in Matter of Skirball Cultural Center, 25 I&N Dec. 799 (AAO 2012) addressing the term “culturally unique” and its significance in adjudicating P-3 visa petitions for performing artists and entertainers. This decision is significant in light of a growing trend where the culturally unique artistic tradition of one country or ethnicity is influenced by artistic traditions from elsewhere. For instance, musicians trained in Indian classical music have incorporated Western jazz and rock influences. The most famous example of such a fusion band was Shakti, which incorporated South Indian Carnatic music and jazz elements, featuring guitarist John McLaughlin, South Indian violinist L. Shankar and Zakir Hussain on tabla and T.H Vikku Vinayakram on the ghatam (an earthen pot). Examples of hybrid groups abound all over the world, and a contemporary example is Afro Celt Sound Systems, which is a hybrid of African and Celt music. Afrobeat is another classic example of a fusion genre that originally fused American funk music with African rhythms, and its main exponent has been Fela Kuti. Until this decision, there was a risk that such groups would not be considered to be “culturally unique” as they did not incorporate the music which is unique to a particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other group of persons.

The Skirball Cultural Center filed a P-3 nonimmigrant petition on behalf of a musical group from Argentina that was denied a performing artists’ visa for failing to establish that the group’s performance was “culturally unique” as required for this visa classification. USCIS noted that “due to the unusually complex and novel issue and the likelihood that the same issue could arise in future decisions, the decision was recommended for review.”

The AAO approved the petition after its review of the entire record, which included expert written testimony and corroborating evidence on behalf of the musical group. USCIS said that the regulatory definition of “culturally unique” requires the agency to make a case-by-case factual determination. The decision clarifies that a “culturally unique” style of art or entertainment is not limited to traditional art forms, but may include artistic expression that is deemed to be a hybrid or fusion of more than one culture or region.

The petitioner had sought classification of the beneficiaries as P-3 entertainers for a period of approximately six weeks. The beneficiaries were musicians in the group known as Orquesta Kef. The ensemble of seven musicians from Argentina had been performing together for between four and eight years, according to a letter dated September 2009, and performed music that blended klezmer (Jewish music of Eastern Europe) with Latin and South American influences. The group’s biography stated that the band had developed “its own and unique musical style” based on “the millenary force of tradition and the powerful emotion of the Jewish culture, mixed in with Latin American sounds.” The petitioner also provided a letter from an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication supporting the band’s claim to cultural uniqueness, among other submitted expert opinion letters and published materials.

The decision noted that Congress did not define the term “culturally unique” and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (now USCIS) defined it in regulations as “a style of artistic expression, methodology, or medium which is unique to a particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other group of persons.” See 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(p)(3)(2012).

In her decision denying the petition, the director stated that a hybrid or fusion style of music “cannot be considered culturally unique to one particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other group of persons.”

The AAO said that the director’s reasoning was not supported by the record, noting:

[T]he fact that the regulatory definition allows its application to an unspecified “group of persons” makes allowances for beneficiaries whose unique artistic expression crosses regional, ethnic, or other boundaries. While a style of artistic expression must be exclusive to an identifiable people or territory to qualify under the regulations, the idea of “culture” is not static and must allow for adaptation or transformation over time and across geographic boundaries. The term “group of persons” gives the regulatory definition a great deal of flexibility and allows for the emergence of distinct subcultures. Furthermore, the nature of the regulatory definition of “culturally unique” requires USCIS to make a case-by-case factual determination based on the agency’s expertise and discretion. Of course, the petitioner bears the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that the beneficiaries’ artistic expression, while drawing from diverse influences, is unique to an identifiable group of persons with a distinct culture. To determine whether the beneficiaries’ artistic expression is unique, the director must examine each piece of evidence for relevance, probative value, and credibility, both individually and within the context of the entire record.

The AAO pointed out that the director’s decision failed to note that the beneficiary group was a klezmer band and “seemed to struggle to identify the nature of the group’s musical performance, focusing instead on the group’s musical influences. Here, the evidence establishes that the beneficiaries’ music is, first and foremost, Jewish klezmer music that has been uniquely fused with traditional Argentine musical styles.” The AAO said it found particularly persuasive an expert opinion explaining that klezmer music, “while often associated with ethnically Jewish people, is an artistic form that has migrated and is continually mixed with and influenced by other cultures.” The AAO also noted the fact that the beneficiaries were South Americans born to Eastern European immigrants and therefore were influenced by both cultures to create something new and unique to their experience. All the opinion letters submitted also recognized the existence of a distinct Jewish Argentine culture and identity that was expressed in the beneficiary group’s music. Furthermore, the AAO noted, the published articles submitted recognized a musical movement in Argentina that fuses Argentine styles with influences from Jewish music and other Eastern European styles, and the articles and opinion letters placed the beneficiary group at the forefront of this trend.

Accordingly, the AAO found that the petitioner had established by a preponderance of the evidence that the modern South American klezmer music performed by the beneficiary group was representative of the Jewish culture of the beneficiaries’ home country of Argentina and that the group’s musical performance therefore fell within the regulatory definition of “culturally unique.” The AAO added that the petitioner had submitted an itinerary showing that the beneficiary group would be performing at Jewish cultural centers and temples during its U.S. tour, which provided further evidence that the performances would be culturally unique events.

Matter of Skirball Cultural Center remarkably recognizes the significance of crossover cultural trends and that “the idea of culture is not static,” which is increasing in our globalized world, where people have access to music from anywhere on an iPhone and have learned to enjoy fusion and hybrid forms. The favorable impact of this decision can extend to other art forms such as dance and drama too. Thanks to this decision, audiences in America need not fear of being deprived of hearing their favorite fusion bands live!