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The Empire Strikes Back – USCIS Rescinds Deference To Prior Approvals In Extension Requests

The Trump administration is deriving great pleasure in causing pain to people who wish to lawfully come to the United States and remain here lawfully. It has caused H-1B carnage as more H-1B visa petitions are being denied than ever before on legally baseless grounds.

Continuing to rub salt in the wound, the USCIS issued a Policy Memorandum dated October 23, 2017 that rescinds its prior guidance of deferring to prior approvals when adjudicating extension requests involving the same parties and underlying facts as the initial determination. Despite the deference policy, there were broad exceptions under which it would not apply if it was 1) determined that there was a material error with regard to the previous petition approval; (2) a substantial change in circumstances has taken place; or (3) there was new material information that adversely impacts the petitioner’s or beneficiary’s eligibility.

The new Policy Memorandum in rescinding the prior policy instructs adjudicators with respect to extension requests to thoroughly review the petition and supporting evidence to determine eligibility for the benefit sought. The Policy Memorandum further reminds that the burden of proof in establishing eligibility is, at all times, on the petitioner under INA § 291 and criticizes the former deference policy for “appear[ing] to place the burden on USCIS to obtain and review a separate record of proceeding to assess whether the underlying facts in the current proceeding have, in fact, remained the same.” The Policy Memorandum also vaguely notes that “[the prior policy] was also impractical and costly to properly implement, especially when adjudicating premium processing requests.”

The Policy Memorandum also rescinds a similar deference policy that was set forth in the USCIS L-1B Policy Guidance of 2015 with respect to L-1B extensions.  Under that policy too, adjudicators were reminded to defer to prior L-1B adjudications, unless the exceptions applied. This aspect of the L-1B Guidance is no longer applicable. The Policy Memorandum does not affect the deference given to prior favorable adjudications in the EB-5 program, as described in the EB-5 Policy Memorandum of 2013.

On the one hand, the Policy Memorandum rescinding deference does not change much as the USCIS was in any event not giving deference to prior approvals. The exceptions in deferring to prior approvals were broad. It was routine for an adjudicator to invoke that there may have been a material error in approving the prior petition, or there was a substantial change in circumstances, or that there was new material information that substantially impacted eligibility. It has always been the practice of most petitioners filing extension petitions, and the attorneys who represent them, to not take for granted that the USCIS adjudicator would give deference to the prior approval. Therefore, it has always been a best practice to provide substantial supporting information and evidence at the time of filing an extension as if it was being filed for the first time.

Still, on the other hand, the Policy Memorandum will incentivize adjudicators to issue unnecessary Requests for Evidence (RFE) that will not just cause uncertainty to petitioning employers but will cause havoc in the lives of foreign nationals. Many of these RFEs will likely be preludes to denials of extension requests on behalf of foreign nationals who have been living in the United States for many years, and were used to getting approvals on extension requests. The USCIS has been reading out entire occupations from the H-1B law that would have otherwise been easily approvable. The USCIS relies on the description of the occupation in the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) to justify its denials. For example, with respect to Computer Systems Analysts, the OOH states that a “bachelor’s degree in a computer or information science field is common, although not always a requirement. Some firms hire analysts with business or liberal arts degrees who know how to write computer programs.” The USCIS has often used this as a justification to deny an H-1B petition filed on behalf of a Computer Systems Analyst, and now that the deference policy no longer exits, will be used even if the USCIS had previously approved the H-1B petition on behalf of the Computer Systems Analyst.

There are foreign nationals who have been patiently waiting for permanent residency for several years due to backlogs in the employment second and third preferences. They may be applying for yet another H-1B extension beyond the sixth year (and in many instances, this may either be their 10th or 12th year in H-1B status), and they risk the prospect of the USCIS suddenly pulling out the rug from under their feet. In prior years, many entrepreneurs received H-1B or O-1A/1B approvals through their own startups based on guidance in what used to be a very informative Entrepreneur Pathways Portal.  To this author’s dismay, that portal has been replaced with  basic plain vanilla information about different visas. Gone out of existence is the thoughtful guidance for entrepreneurs on how they can legitimately use H-1B, L-1 or O visas. Since an adjudicator need not pay deference to the earlier approval, and since the guidance on entrepreneurs no longer exists, extensions requests of a startup on behalf of its founder may also be subject to additional scrutiny and thus greater peril.

It is no coincidence that the Policy Memorandum was issued shortly after Francis Cissna was confirmed as USCIS Director on October 8, 2017. Although Mr. Cissna is highly experienced, having worked in various capacities within the DHS from 2005 until 2017, he was also detailed by the DHS to the Senate Judiciary Committee, specifically to the office of Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, where he spent two years, from 2015 to 2017. It was during this time that Grassley wrote critical letters to the agency on immigration issues, many of which were authored by Mr. Cissna. Mr. Cissna also assisted the Trump presidential campaign on immigration issues. Trump’s stance against both legal and undocumented immigration as taking away American jobs is well known. This is now being translated into action on behalf of the president by people like Mr. Cissna and Steve Miller. The anti-immigrant movement, like the evil Galactic Empire in the Star War movie series, has struck back hard. The Policy Memorandum rescinding deference resembles one of those devastating attacks against good people ordered by Darth Vader on behalf of the Empire.

The prior deference policy was good policy as it was in harmony with regulations that clearly instruct that in extension H-1B, O-1, L-1 and P petitions, petitioners need not submit the same supporting evidence as they did when filing the new petition.

8 CFR § 214.2(h)(14), with respect to H-1B extensions, provides:

(14) Extension of visa petition validity. The petitioner shall file a request for a petition extension on Form I-129 to extend the validity of the original petition under section 101(a)(15)(H) of the Act. Supporting evidence is not required unless requested by the director. A request for a petition extension may be filed only if the validity of the original petition has not expired.

The same language indicating that supporting evidence is not required exists with respect to L visa extensions at 8 CFR 214.2(l)(14)(i); O extensions at 8 CFR 214.2(o)(11) and P extensions at 8 CFR 214.2(p)(13).

The Policy Memorandum acknowledges the existence of these regulations, and tries to clumsily skirt around them by instructing adjudicators as follows:

However, although these regulatory provisions govern what is required to be submitted at the time of filing the petition extension, they do not limit, and, in fact, reiterate, USCIS’ authority to request additional evidence. While adjudicators should be aware of these regulatory provisions, they should not feel constrained in requesting additional documentation in the course of adjudicating a petition extension, consistent with existing USCIS policy regarding requests for evidence, notices of intent to deny, and the adjudication of petitions for nonimmigrant benefits.

There is clearly tension between the Policy Memorandum and the regulations that do not require supporting evidence when filing extension petitions through the same employer. If a petitioner does not need to file any initial evidence, and the adjudicator is giving no deference to prior adjudications, how will adjudicators know what to do? Will they simply request an RFE in every case? Is that really consistent with a regulation explicitly stating that you do not need to file any evidence unless requested?  This could provide a legal basis to challenge the Policy Memorandum in federal court as violating the regulations that explicitly do not require supporting evidence. The regulations have more legal force than the Policy Memorandum, which appears to be rescinding the regulations. If petitioners who file routine extensions are faced with a blizzard of RFEs that ultimately lead to denials, they should challenge the Policy Memorandum in federal court.

The Policy Memorandum also states that it is consistent with the “agency’s current priorities and also advances policies that protect the interests of U.S. workers.” These priorities did not exist when the initial petition was approved. Like all the other restrictive polices implemented under the Trump administration, the rescission of the deference policy is to further Trump’s Buy American Hire American (BAHA) Executive Order. The BAHA Executive Order was also not in existence when Congress created the H-B, L, E, O or P visa provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act. According to the legislative history for the 1970 Act, the L-1 visa was intended to “help eliminate problems now faced by American companies having offices abroad in transferring key personnel freely within the organization.” H.R. Rep. No. 91-851 (1970), reprinted in 1970 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2750, 2754, 1970 WL 5815 (Leg. Hist.).  There is also no indication in the plain text of INA 101(a)(15)(L) that the purpose of the L visa  was to “create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests.” If Congress desired that objective in the L visa program, it would have stated so more explicitly. Indeed, Congress did speak about protecting US workers in INA 101(a)(15)(H)(ii)(b) requiring an H-2B worker to perform temporary services or labor only “if unemployed persons capable of performing such service or labor cannot be found in this country.” Even with respect to H-1B visas, Congress specifically required employers to make attestations with relating to wages with the Department of Labor, but they were not required to conduct recruitment of US workers unless they were H-1B dependent employers who did not have exempt workers. Therefore, if Congress desired the same purpose as enshrined in the BAHA Executive Order for the L, the H-1B (at least for non-dependent employers who do not have exempt employees), O or P visa, as it did for the H-2B visa, it would have said so. It is inconsistent not just with the regulations, but with the provisions in the INA to rescind deference because the USCIS wishes to adjudicate extension petitions consistent with BAHA.

This provides a further basis to challenge the Policy Memorandum in federal court, in addition to contradicting the above stated regulations, if it leads to denials of extension requests that were previously readily approved. The new Policy Memorandum appears to insist on deference to BAHA over a prior approval under the INA, which stems from Trump’s America First campaign slogan. BAHA deserves no deference as it is nativism in another name and has also been linked to Anti-Semitism in America’s not too distant past. Adjudicators must faithfully implement the plain meaning of the provisions in the INA without regard to Trump’s America First doctrine, which views immigrants as job stealers rather than recognizes their amazing contributions to the US. Immigration lawyers, like the Jedi Knights who ultimately prevail over Darth Vader and his evil empire, must be prepared to challenge adverse decisions stemming from the Policy Memorandum in order to restore fairness and balance in our immigration system.

Stopping H-1B Carnage

In his inaugural address, President Trump pledged to end what he referred to as “American carnage,” depicting the United States bleakly—as a “land of abandoned factories, economic angst, rising crime”—while pledging “a new era in American politics.”

To reverse what Trump sees as American carnage, his administration has unleashed carnage on the H-1B visa program.  The H-1B visa has become the visible symbol of an immigration program that is thought to no longer protect American jobs and favors the foreign worker. Whether this is factually true is beside the point – it is good for optics and in furtherance of Trump’s campaign slogan of America First.   It does not matter that H-1B visas help American firms remain globally competitive, or that foreign workers complement the US workforce rather than replace them, resulting in greater overall efficiency, productivity and jobs. The H-1B visa is the low hanging fruit that the administration uses for target practice by shooting out a Request for Evidence (RFE), which is often a prelude to the denial.

Consistent with his view of American First, on April 18, 2017, President Trump signed the “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order No. 13788. The EO aims to create higher wages and employment rates for U.S. workers, and directs the Secretaries of State, Labor, and Homeland Security, as well as the Attorney General, to issue new rules and guidance to protect the interests of U.S. workers in the administration of the immigration system. The EO highlights the H-1B visa program and directs the agencies to ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most skilled and highest-paid beneficiaries.

Although the administration has yet to influence any legislation in Congress or change rules, the impact of the EO has hit the H-1B visa program the hardest. It has been seen in the increased number of Requests for Evidence (RFEs) challenging the paying of Level 1 wages, even though employers have legitimately offered positions to entry-level workers under the H-1B visa program. Despite the wage challenges, a well-crafted response can overcome the suspicion that an entry-level 1 wage cannot be sustained under the H-1B visa. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the USCIS is approving cases after a level 1 wage challenge, although at the same time the USCIS challenges  whether the occupation qualifies for H-1B classification. Therefore, winning the level 1 wage challenge may be a pyrrhic victory if the USCIS reads out the occupation from the H-1B law. It is necessary to not just overcome the level 1 wage challenge, but also the challenge as to whether the occupation in question qualifies for H-1B visa classification.

At first, the Trump administration focused its attack on programmers. On  March 31, 2017, on the eve of the FY 2018 H-1B Cap filing season, the USCIS issued a policy memorandum stating that computer programmer positions are not always “specialty occupations” that would render the occupation eligible under the H-1B visa. This memo rescinded an earlier memo of the Nebraska Service Center from 2000, which acknowledged that computer programming occupations were specialty occupations for H-1B purposes. The new guidance references the relevant part on computer programmers in the DOL’s Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) that states, “Most computer programmers have a bachelor’s degree; however, some employers hire workers who have an associate’s degree.”  The guidance also questions whether a computer programmer position that is offered an entry-level wage could qualify for an H-1B specialty occupation because, as the OOH suggests, an associate’s degree is sufficient to enter into the field.

It has now become evident that USCIS is not just challenging programmers, but relying on the OOH to attack other computer occupations, especially at the California Service Center. It does not matter whether the employer is paying a level 1 wage or higher.  For example, when challenging a Computer Systems Analyst, the USCIS uses the OOH as a basis to issue the RFE and then the denial. USCIS recognizes, in many unpublished AAO decisions, “OOH as an authoritative source on the duties and educational requirements of the wide variety of occupations that it addresses.” When justifying its challenge to an occupation, the USCIS cites the section in the OOH relating to education and training. For example, with respect to Computer Systems Analysts, it reproduces the following extract from the OOH (often underlining the parts USCIS thinks are relevant to support the decision):

A bachelor’s degree in a computer or information science field is common, although not always a requirement. Some firms hire analysts with business or liberal arts degrees who know how to write computer programs.

Education

Most computer systems analysts have a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field. Because computer systems analysts are also heavily involved in the business side of a company, it may be helpful to take business courses or major in management information systems (MIS).

Some employers prefer applicants who have a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration in information systems. For more technically complex jobs, a master’s degree in computer science may be more appropriate.

Although many analysts have technical degrees, such a degree is not always a requirement. Many systems analysts have liberal arts degrees and have gained programming or technical expertise elsewhere.

Some analysts have an associate’s degree and experience in a related occupation.

Many systems analysts continue to take classes throughout their careers so that they can learn about new and innovative technologies and keep their skills competitive. Technological advances come so rapidly in the computer field that continual study is necessary to remain competitive.

Systems analysts must also understand the business field they are working in. For example, a hospital may want an analyst with a background or coursework in health management. An analyst working for a bank may need to understand finance.

After citing the OOH section, the USCIS typically asserts that although a bachelor’s degree is often sufficient for computer systems analyst position, the OOH does not specify a specific educational background required for this occupation. USCIS then goes on to conclude that as the requirements appear to vary by employer as to what course of study might be appropriate or preferred, a Computer Systems Analyst cannot qualify for the H-1B visa.

A decision based on the OOH ought to be challenged. It is not appropriate to treat the OOH as the gospel truth, without regard to the evidence that was submitted by the petitioning employer, and to twist the meaning of the words in order to justify a denial.

The regulations define “specialty occupation” as one that “requires the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher in a specific specialty.”  8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(ii).  The regulations go onto provide four regulatory criteria, and the petitioner must satisfy at least one, that would qualify the position as a specialty occupation (and if the USCIS can underline what it believes is relevant, so will this author!):

  • A baccalaureate or higher degree or its equivalent is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position;
  • The degree requirement is common to the industry in parallel positions among similar organizations or, in the alternative, an employer may show that its particular position is so complex or unique that it can be performed only by an individual with a degree;
  • The employer normally requires a degree or its equivalent for the position; or
  • The nature of the specific duties are so specialized and complex that knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with the attainment of a baccalaureate or higher degree.  See 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A).

It is clear from the plain meaning of these regulations that there is no requirement that a bachelor’s degree is always a requirement. Nowhere in the regulation does it require that a bachelor’s degree must “always” be a minimum requirement.  In fact, if the OOH uses terms such as “most” or “typically” or “common”, that should meet the requirement of the regulations.

USCIS also selectively cites portions from the OOH, and conveniently neglects to cite this concluding important paragraph in the education and training part of Computer Systems Analysts:

Systems analysts must understand the business field they are working in. For example, a hospital may want an analyst with a thorough understanding of health plans and programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and an analyst working for a bank may need to understand finance. Having knowledge of their industry helps systems analysts communicate with managers to determine the role of the information technology (IT) systems in an organization.

The employer may rely on this section in the OOH to demonstrate that the computer professional is working in the niche business field, which could be health care or computer security. Therefore, the systems analyst would also need to have a thorough understanding of the business field, such as finance, besides being able to perform the generic duties of a systems analyst. By emphasizing the need for the computer systems analyst to be performing in a niche business area, the employer may have more of a legal justification for requiring a specialized degree in the field. When relying on prong 4 under 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A), it is important to justify that complex duties may be performed even with the Level 1 wage. In other words, the job duties of the challenged occupation remain complex in the O*Net, regardless of the H-1B worker performing at an entry level and being closely supervised. The reason why a Level 1 wage was assigned is because the prospective worker met the entry level wage under the DOL’s prevailing wage guidance based on less than two years of experience required for the job and not possessing unusual skills – not because the duties were any less complex. It may also be imperative to obtain an expert opinion from a professor in the same field to justify the essentiality of a bachelor’s degree, even at the entry level. The USCIS may disregard the expert opinion, but it may only reject such an opinion if it is not in accord with other information in the record or is otherwise questionable. In Matter of Skirball Cultural Center, the AAO held that uncontroverted testimony of an expert is reliable, relevant, and probative as to the specific facts in issue.

The AAO in an unpublished decision in 2006 reversed a denial of an H-1B petition that was filed by an action film entertainment company on behalf of a foreign national who would be employed as a Film and Video Director. Although this is not a precedential decision, it can be used as a template to respond to a challenge when the USCIS relies on the OOH to deny that a specialty occupation is classifiable under the H-1B visa. In reversing the denial of the H-1B petition by the California Service Center, the AAO listed in great detail the foreign national’s proposed duties as Film and Video Director. The duties included interpreting the screenplay, communicating with actors and camera personnel, development of script with the producer, selecting locations, work out all camera angles, directing the actors and directing performance of all on-camera talent, to name a few.

The AAO concluded that despite the fact that the USCIS made reference to the OOH not mentioning that a baccalaureate education in a specific specialty is normally the minimum for entry into such positions, this position was sufficiently complex to require a bachelor’s degree. The AAO, therefore, relied on the 4th prong of the regulation, 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A)(4), analyzing that the position was so specialized and complex that knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with the attainment of a baccalaureate or higher degree. The relevant extract from the AAO’s decision is worth noting:

Much of the work performed by the petitioner involves the transformation of live-action (photographed “reality”) into special effect animated digital media. That process utilizes “motion-capture,” a process involving computerized capturing and digitizing of live-action for the purpose of integrating this information into video game development and Internet applications. Motion- capture is an area of expertise that requires the use of specialized equipment and personnel. Further, the beneficiary is involved in virtually all areas of project production and development, including the editing of the final project. Under these circumstances, the petitioner has established the criterion at 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A)(4)

The AAO’s rejection of the official job description in the OOH is salutary, and petitioners should continue to convince the USCIS, and the AAO if there an appeal, that completely relying on the OOH is inappropriate, and it is also necessary to consider the complexity of the duties described by the petitioner in the H-1B petition. The AAO decision is striking because the OOH entry for the occupation of film and video director was more equivocal than computer systems analyst with respect to employers requiring a bachelor’s degree in the occupation. Petitioning employers should take great pains in fleshing out the duties of the position when filing an H-1B petition in showing that they are different from the standardized duties in the OOH. In the event that the OOH does not state that the occupation in question always requires a bachelor’s degree, it is imperative that the employer be able to justify that the position is complex and specialized to require a bachelor’s degree. It would also be helpful for the employer to show that it has hired others in the past with the same degree requirements, provide industry articles and other information about the minimum entry requirements into these occupations as well as descriptions of US college programs leading to degrees in the specialty occupation.

If an industry or occupation does not always require a bachelor’s degree, as confirmed in the OOH, and the employer is unable to establish that the position is more specialized and complex than the industry standard, the H-1B petition may fail. For instance, an H-1B petition filed on behalf of a violinist by a symphony orchestra did not succeed as the employer was unable to establish that the position always, rather than usually, required a bachelor’s degree. See Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra v. INS, 44 F.Supp, 2d 800 (E.D. Lou. 1999); denial upheld after remand 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3331 (Mar. 18, 2000). Therefore, it is important to demonstrate that the duties are more specialized and complex than the norm, while keeping in mind that the argument should also be consistent with the fact that an entry-level wage, if that is the case, can also justify such duties.  Also, a “specific specialty” does not mean a degree in only one field.  A specialty occupation may justify several common or related degree fields.  If the OOH adds a few degree fields to a description, that does not mean than the position no longer qualifies for H-1B classification. Even when the minimum requirements are in two disparate fields, such as philosophy and engineering, then, as stated in an unpublished AAO decision, the petitioner must demonstrate how each field is “directly related to the duties and responsibilities of the particular position such that the ‘body of highly specialized knowledge’ is essentially an amalgamation of these different specialties.”

In the event that the H-1B is denied, it is not the end of the road. The denial can be appealed to the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO). Once the appeal is filed, the USCIS Service Center which denied the petition has 45 days within which to conduct an initial field review and decide whether to treat the appeal as a motion to reopen and/or reconsider and approve the petition; or forward the appeal and the related record of proceedings to the AAO. If the AAO denies, the denial can also be challenged in federal court. If USCIS seeks to reinterpret H-1B provisions in light of the Buy American Hire American EO resulting in denials, those decisions ought to be challenged as they are contrary to the plain meaning of the statute as well as Congressional intent. There is nothing in the law or the regulations that clearly indicate that the government can wholesale deny H-1B classification for an occupation just because the OOH indicates that most employers, rather than all employers, require a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, there is nothing in the INA that suggests that an H-1B visa petition cannot be approved solely because the prospective H-1B worker will be paid an entry level wage. Indeed, it is also permissible under Darby v. Cisneros to bypass the AAO and challenge the denial directly in federal court. The Trump administration cannot read out entire occupations from the H-1B law based on slavish reliance of the OOH. If the AAO does not relent, then perhaps a federal court will be able to stop the H-1B carnage.

Dealing With The Dreaded RFE – Reflections Of An Immigration Lawyer

RFE is the acronym for Request for Evidence. It is dreaded by immigration lawyers who file H-1B visa petitions and other applications for immigration benefits. The RFE is essentially a challenge by the immigration agency, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), asserting that the applicant does not appear to be qualified for the visa classification, and therefore requests additional information to adjudicate. The time given to respond to an RFE is generally 87 days. The RFE can consist of several pages of objections. Upon receiving it, the immigration lawyer must meticulously strategize a response in conjunction with the client. Responding to the RFE can take several hours, and at times days on end. It requires coordinating with others for an expert evaluation, as well as for corroborative letters from other employers and trade organizations. Although responding to an RFE is part of a routine administrative process, it feels like one is writing a brief to an appellate court. There is a lot of tension for both the lawyer and the client. If the response to the RFE cannot be overcome in the eyes of a faceless bureaucrat in a remote immigration service center, the petition is denied. The consequences can be drastic. The foreign national beneficiary falls out of status, and may have to leave the United States with family in tow. If the case was filed under the H-1B cap, filing a new one will not be possible until the employer waits for H-1B cap filing period next year, and then too there is no assurance that the H-1B will get selected under next year’s lottery.

It is not a surprise, therefore, that when the Administration does not favor a particular visa, the RFE rate increases. A case in point is the H-1B visa that has become the favorite whipping boy over several administrations. An article in Reuters by Yeganeh Torbati entitled “Trump administration red tape tangles up visas for skilled foreigners, data shows,” where I have been quoted, brilliantly shines the torch on the dreaded RFE and how it is used to distort a visa program even though this was not the intention of Congress. This article has made the RFE a household name. What the government cannot change through Congress or by amending the rules through notice and comment, it does through the RFE. If it wishes to bring about a new policy, such as insisting on the employer demonstrating an employer-employee relationship, or as seen more recently under the Trump administration, insisting on higher wages under the H-1B visa, it does so through the RFE. Even if there be no legal basis for insisting that only one who is paid more than an entry level wage can qualify for the H-1B visa, the administration tries to bring about this change through the RFE. To get a better understanding of the recent RFE trend based on entry level wages, read my prior blog H-1B Entry Level Wage Blues.

The following extract from the Reuters article is worth reproducing:

The Trump administration is making it more difficult for skilled foreigners to work in the United States, challenging visa applications more often than at nearly any point in the Obama era, according to data reviewed by Reuters.

The more intense scrutiny of the applications for H-1B visas comes after President Donald Trump called for changes to the visa program so that it benefits the highest-paid workers, though he has not enacted any such reforms.

Data provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shows that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, the agency issued 85,000 challenges, or “requests for evidence” (RFEs), to H-1B visa petitions – a 45 percent increase over the same period last year. The total number of H-1B petitions rose by less than 3 percent in the same period.

The challenges, which can slow down the issuance of visas by months, were issued at a greater rate in 2017 than at any time in the Obama administration except for one year, 2009, according to the USCIS data, which has not been previously reported.

The trend is likely to cheer supporters of Trump’s hardline stance on immigration. They say visas for skilled foreigners undercut American workers by replacing them with low-paid employees shipped in from abroad. But major tech companies, universities and hospitals contend the visas allow them to fill highly specialized jobs for which there are sometimes few qualified Americans.

H-1B visas allow foreign workers, generally with bachelor’s degrees or higher, to work for three years at a time, often in the technology, healthcare and education sectors. Microsoft (MSFT.O), Amazon (AMZN.O), Google (GOOGL.O), Apple (AAPL.O), Intel (INTC.O), Oracle (ORCL.N) and Facebook (FB.O) were heavy users of H-1B visas in 2016, according to USCIS data.

The USCIS inquiries typically challenge the basis of the original petitions and assert that the employers do not qualify for the visas. Employers and their lawyers must then provide further evidence to prove their need and eligibility for the visas.

To be sure, the Obama administration also issued a large number of H-1B challenges – nearly 59,000 – from January through August 2016, and a similar number in 2015.

Immigration attorneys have for years complained about redundant and burdensome challenges to high-skilled employment visas. But they say they are seeing a new trend in the Trump era.

In addition to querying applications more often, the Trump administration is targeting entry-level jobs offered to skilled foreigners. The lawyers say this violates the law governing H-1Bs, because it allows for visa holders to take entry-level jobs.

Several attorneys said they view the increase in challenges and focus on entry-level jobs as a stealth campaign by the administration against the H-1B program in the absence of public regulatory changes or changes passed by Congress, which could be debated and decided in the open.

“One way to have an immigration policy that’s consistent with the policy that’s been articulated by the Trump administration is to put more scrutiny on H-1B cases,” said Cyrus Mehta, a New York-based immigration attorney.

 You can continue to read the entire article here.

It is no accident that the issuance of 85,000 RFEs between January 1 and August 31, 2017 on H-1B visa petitions, coincided with Trump’s America First policy that got crystalized in the Buy American Hire American Executive Order. While not official, it is widely believed that the goal of the Trump administration is to curb legal immigration. Since it is difficult to meet this objective through Congress, the Administration has resorted to the issuance of RFEs on the spurious and legally unsustainable ground that a person who is offered a Level 1 wage cannot be classified for an H-1B visa. A spate of RFEs were also issued during the Obama administration on H-1B visas, after the issuance of the Neufeld Memo on January 8, 2010, which set forth the standards for determining an employer-employee relationship under 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(ii). However, those RFEs were issued against IT consulting firms whose business models were to place H-1B workers at third party client sites. The RFEs being issued under the Trump administration seem to curb the entire H-1B visa program.

The current trend in RFEs on H-1B visas do not just challenge the Level 1 wage, but also whether the position qualifies as a specialty occupation. The RFE also questions the beneficiary’s maintenance of F-1 status under Curricular Practical Training challenging whether the CPT constituted an integral part of the program. At times, evidence is also requested to establish that the company is doing business as stated in the H-1B petition. Many RFEs also challenge the employer-employee relationship under the Neufeld Memo. Even if the H-1B worker is not working at a client site, the RFE still asks for proof that there is sufficient work to employ the H-1B worker in the specialty occupation at the employer’s place of business. Although there has been a general upswing in the issuance of RFEs, H-1Bs appear to be getting hit the hardest.

When such an RFE is received, one should take a deep breath and respond appropriately. Imagine yourself feeding the beast in order to tame it or make it go away. If you feed the beast well, it will go away satisfied. If you do not feed it well, it will still be hungry and will come back for more. Respond to every issue raised in the RFE even if you believe that you submitted the evidence previously. If there is a silly request, still respond. For example, RFEs often ask for a weekly percentage breakdown of the duties listed in the job description. This is a rather flawed and ridiculous request, as it is rare that modern employers keep tabs of such breakdowns. Most people occupying professional positions tend to multitask, and are expected to be creative and motivated, thus going beyond what is expected of them in the official job description. You may wish to preface the response by stating that such a request has no bearing to the reality of the job, although a good faith attempt has still been made to approximately breakdown the duties into percentages. Be forewarned that if you feed the beast offal, it will not be satisfied. You need to feed it the choicest bits of meat. For example, the RFE at times erroneously asks that all of the four regulatory prongs to show that the position qualifies as a specialty occupation be satisfied, when only one needs to be satisfied:

A baccalaureate or higher degree or its equivalent is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position;

The degree requirement is common to the industry in parallel positions among similar organizations or, in the alternative, an employer may show that its particular position is so complex or unique that it can be performed only by an individual with a degree;

The employer normally requires a degree or its equivalent for the position; or

The nature of the specific duties are so specialized and complex that knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with the attainment of a baccalaureate or higher degree.

See 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A).

Thus, petitioners and their attorneys should strategically decide whether to address all four prongs or only one or more of the four prongs. At times, responding to prong 4, when there is also a challenge to the Level 1 wage, could backfire. If you demonstrate that the position is so specialized and unique, then the USCIS can hit back asserting that if the job was “so specialized and complex,” then the position could not have commanded an entry level 1 wage. On the other hand, a petitioner may have no choice but to rely on prong 4 if it is not acknowledged in the Occupational Outlook Handbook that employers always require a bachelor’s degree in the specialty occupation. For example, the OOH with respect to Computer Programmers states, “Most computer programmers have a bachelor’s degree; however, some employers hire workers with an associate’s degree.” It may be risky to rely on the first prong for the position of computer programmer since the OOH acknowledges that some are hired with an associate degree.

Even if the employer normally hires computer programmers with bachelor’s degrees under prong 3, the employer’s requirements in isolation cannot be given deference if a bachelor’s degree is not normally required by all employers, according to the holding in a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Defensor v. Meissner, which the USCIS loves to cite in the RFE.

When relying on prong 4, it is important to justify that complex duties may be performed even with the Level 1 wage. In other words, the job duties of the challenged occupation remain complex in the O*Net, regardless of the H-1B worker performing at an entry level and being closely supervised. The reason why a Level 1 wage was assigned is because the prospective worker met the entry level wage under the DOL’s prevailing wage guidance based on less than two years of experience required for the job and not possessing unusual skills – not because the duties were any less complex.  It may also be imperative to obtain an expert opinion from a professor in the same field to justify the essentiality of a bachelor’s degree, even at the entry level. The USCIS may disregard the expert opinion, but it may only reject such testimony if it is not in accord with other information in the record or is otherwise questionable. In Matter of Skirball Cultural Center, the AAO held that uncontroverted testimony of an expert is reliable, relevant, and probative as to the specific facts in issue.

In this author’s experience, most RFEs can be overcome and the H-1B visa petition is approved. It is difficult to predict whether this trend will continue under the Trump Administration’s Buy American Hire American Executive Order. The EO aims to create higher wages and employment rates for U.S. workers, and directs the Secretaries of State, Labor, and Homeland Security, as well as the Attorney General, to issue new rules and guidance to protect the interests of U.S. workers in the administration of the immigration system. The EO highlights the H-1B visa program and directs the agencies to ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most skilled and highest-paid beneficiaries.

If the H-1B is denied, it is not the end of the road. The denial can be appealed to the Administrative Appeals Office, and it is also possible that the USCIS can reconsider the denial before it is sent to the AAO. If the AAO denies, the denial can also be challenged in federal court. In fact, it is also permissible under Darby v. Cisneros to bypass the AAO and challenge the denial directly in federal court. It is quite likely that if there is a pattern and practice of denials on the Level 1 wage issue, there will be challenges in federal court that will review the case with a different lens from the USCIS or AAO.

There was a time when it was thought that RFEs issued under the Neufeld Memo were insurmountable. Soon, upon meticulously addressing those RFEs, employers and their lawyers were able to overcome the objections and get an H-1B approval by establishing the employer-employee relationship. Likewise, there are even stronger arguments to demonstrate that the mere offering of a level 1 wage does not disqualify a foreign national form H-1B classification, which should hopefully overcome the recent spate of RFEs.