Posts

The Government’s “Nasty” Treatment Of Expert Opinions In Support Of H-1B Visa Petitions

USCIS’ current ferocious attack on H-1B petitions has been discussed here, here and here. Backed by the Trump administration, USCIS has openly declared war on H-1Bs. What is most frustrating, in my opinion, is not only the fact that there appears to be a concerted effort to find some way to reject each and every logical, rational, legal argument presented in response to one of the USCIS’ Requests for Evidence (RFE) but that it appears that no argument is too baseless for USCIS to present when issuing a denial of an H-1B petition. Case in point is USCIS’ rejections of expert opinions presented to bolster an employer’s argument that an H-1B position is classifiable as a specialty occupation.

As a reminder, in order to hire a foreign worker in a specialty occupation under the H-1B category, the employer must show in its petition that the proffered position meets at least one of the following criteria:

  1. A baccalaureate or higher degree or its equivalent is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position;
  2. 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;
  3. The employer normally requires a degree or its equivalent for the position; or
  4. 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.

8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A)

After USCIS issued its first wave of attack on H-1B petitions filed and selected under the FY 2018 H-1B visa lottery claiming that any position where the H-1B worker would be paid an entry-level (Level 1) wage did not appear to be a specialty occupation, previously blogged about here, this groundless claim was met with mass pushback. Without a legal leg to stand on, USCIS has largely circumvented the issue of the wage levels (although still denying some petitions on that basis) by finding ways to deny the H-1B petition on a claim that the proffered H-1B position simply fails to qualify under any of the specialty occupation prongs listed in 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A). In doing so, USCIS has been rejecting expert opinion letters written by qualified experts expounding on how and why the proffered position qualifies as a specialty occupation. The arguments presented in USCIS’ rejection of these expert opinions are quite maddening.

In an effort to demonstrate that a baccalaureate or higher degree or its equivalent is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position under prongs 1, 2 and/or 4 of 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A), H-1B employers quite frequently solicit the opinion of an expert. This expert is usually a college professor with a rich background in the specific specialty area, who is well-experienced in reviewing and evaluating academic and experience qualifications; and who has had an opportunity to observe and compare the abilities of numerous talented students in the specialty fields, and to analyze the ways in which the educational backgrounds of these students have been applied in the professional industry. Typically, this expert has also offered opinions and analyses of the academic and professional credentials of candidates in connection with university admissions and employment positions. The expert is usually also someone who has been engaged in the preparation of equivalency evaluations and position evaluations, primarily for use with connection to immigration-related procedures, for many years, and has prepared hundreds, sometimes over 1,000 such evaluations. Accordingly, the expert is typically someone well positioned to opine on whether or not a proffered position, in his/her particular specialty field, is a specialty occupation. Pre-Trump, USCIS gave such expert opinions the respect they deserved.

However, USCIS now seeks to discredit these opinions and what’s most frustrating are the rejections reasons presented. Here are a few that this author has had the opportunity to review:

  • The professor did not base his opinion on any objective evidence but instead restated the proffered position as provided by the employer;
  • The professor’s opinion is not supported by citations of research material;
  • The professor did not rely on a specific study of the employer’s organization. There is no evidence that the professor knew more about the proffered position than what the employer provided. There is no indication that the professor visited the employer’s business, observed its employees, interviewed them about the nature of their work, or documented the knowledge that they apply to their jobs.
  • The professor’s opinion does not relate the professor’s conclusions to specific, concrete aspects of the employer’s business operations so as to demonstrate a sound factual basis for the professor’s conclusions about the educational requirements for the proffered position.
  • Given the professor’s limited review of the duties of the position, based largely on the job descriptions furnished by you, USCIS gives less weight to the professor’s opinion.
  • It was held in Matter of Caron International, Inc. 19 I&N Dec. 791 (Comm 1988) that legacy INS, now USCIS, may in its discretion use advisory opinion statements from universities, professional organizations, or other sources submitted in evidence as expert testimony. However, where an opinion is not in accord with other information, or is in any way questionable, USCIS is not required to accept or may give less weight to that evidence.

With some of the reasons for rejection of an expert opinion, USCIS doesn’t make it clear whether they’re expressing doubt as to whether the duties of the proffered position will actually be performed as stated, i.e. whether they think the expert is relying on facts they find not credible, or whether they’re challenging the professor’s overall credibility as an expert. In any event, whatever standard is presently being used to reject the expert opinions, it is not the preponderance of the evidence standard.

Except where a different standard is specified by law, a petitioner or applicant in administrative immigration proceedings must prove by a preponderance of evidence that he or she is eligible for the benefit sought. See e.g. Matter of Martinez, 21 I&N Dec. 1035, 1036 (BIA 1997) (noting that the petitioner must prove eligibility by a preponderance of evidence in visa petition proceedings) . . .

The “preponderance of the evidence” standard requires that the evidence demonstrate that the applicant’s claim is “probably true,” where the determination of “truth” is made based on the factual circumstances of each individual case. Matter of E-M-, 20 I&N Dec. 77, 79-80 (Comm. 1989). In evaluating the evidence, Matter of E-M- also stated that “[t]ruth is to be determined not by the quantity of evidence alone but by its quality.” Id. Thus, in adjudicating the application pursuant to the preponderance of the evidence standard, the director must examine each piece of evidence for relevance, probative value, and credibility, both individually and within the context of the totality of the evidence, to determine whether the fact to be proven is probably true. Even if the director has some doubt as to the truth, if the petitioner submits relevant, probative, and credible evidence that leads the director to believe that the claim is “probably true” or “more likely than not,” the applicant or petitioner has satisfied the standard of proof.  See U.S. v. Cardozo-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421 (1987) (defining “more likely than not” as a greater than 50 percent probability of something occurring).

Matter of Chawathe, A74 254 994 (Admin. Appeals Ofc. / USCIS Adopted Decision, Jan. 11, 2006).

Under the preponderance of the evidence standard, the adjudicating USCIS officer is supposed to approve the petition as long as it is “more likely than not” that their claim is true. USCIS’ recent denials rejecting expert opinions show that this standard is surely not being applied. As an expert, a professor may review the job duties of the proffered position and formulate his opinion based on his expert knowledge of the specialty field, which knowledge would have been explained at length in his opinion letter. The expert need not conduct a specific study of an employer’s organization. He need not visit an employer’s business or observe its employees. His expertise is typically set forth in his opinion letter and he need not provide the USCIS with copies or citations of research material.

Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, which are not binding on H-1B adjudications but may be a useful analogy, a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:

(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) Rule 702, https://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/rule_702. Moreover, an expert may base an opinion on facts or data in the case that the expert has been made aware of or personally observed. If experts in the particular field would reasonably rely on those kinds of facts or data in forming an opinion on the subject, they need not be admissible for the opinion to be admitted. But if the facts or data would otherwise be inadmissible, the proponent of the opinion may disclose them to the jury only if their probative value in helping the jury evaluate the opinion substantially outweighs their prejudicial effect. FRE Rule 703 https://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/rule_703. Thus, even under the Federal Rules of Evidence, first-hand knowledge is not necessarily required even if the expert were testifying in federal court!  An expert can legitimately have an opinion about “facts or data in the case that the expert has been made aware of”, (such as the job duties of a proffered H-1B petition) not merely those which he has “personally observed”.  Immigration proceedings don’t follow the Federal Rules of Evidence, but rather the rules of evidence ought to be more relaxed, not stricter!

So why is USCIS suddenly stretching to find fault with these expert opinions? 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 Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) held that uncontroverted testimony of an expert is reliable, relevant, and probative as to the specific facts in issue. In that case, the AAO specifically pointed out that the director did not question the credentials of the experts, take issue with their knowledge or otherwise find reason to doubt the veracity of their testimony.  But when it comes to the denials of H-1B petitions, it is all too easy to claim doubt, to take issue with the expert’s knowledge and to coolly dismiss the expert opinion.

So are expert opinions still worth it? I would argue that they are. First, H-1B adjudications are still haphazard. There is always a chance that the opinion may be accepted. With the submission of any expert opinion it might be beneficial to include an argument on why the opinion ought to be accepted reminding USCIS of the applicable standard. While in most cases it may not benefit the H-1B employer or beneficiary in the short run, H-1B practitioners must continue to fight back. We cannot go gentle into that good night. A rejection of the expert opinion would lead to a conclusion that USCIS is setting a standard for expert opinions that is even higher than the Federal Rules of Evidence and that would contravene the applicable preponderance of the evidence standard. These denials need to be appealed to the AAO. If the AAO denies, the denial can also be challenged in federal court. In Fred 26 Importers, Inc. v. DHS, 445 F.Supp.2d 1174, 1180-81 (C.D. Cal. 2006) the federal court reversed the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) where it failed to address expert affidavits and other evidence that a human resource manager position was sufficiently complex and rejected the H-1B because it was a small company.  The court held that the AAO abused its discretion when it did not take into account the expert opinion evidence presented by the petitioner to prove that the position required a broad range of skills acquired through a four-year university degree. It is only through continued pushback that these erroneous denials will come to an end.

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.

CHALLENGES IN FILING H-1B VISA PETITIONS FOR UNCOMMON SPECIALTY OCCUPATIONS

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) regularly releases statistics on the H1B – the top occupations and the top employers that file Labor Condition Applications (LCA) for these nonimmigrant worker petitions. As of the Fourth Quarter of FY 2014, six of the top ten certified positions were computer-related occupations.  The rest of the positions in the top ten are Accountants/Auditors, Management Analysts, Financial Analysts, and Electronics Engineers who do not work on computers.  Altogether they make up about 77% of all LCAs submitted to the DOL for certification.

The USCIS last released an H-1B report in July 2013 for FY 2012.  USCIS reported that approximately 59.5% of approved H-1B petitions were for computer-related occupations, and the rest of the top five were occupations in architecture, engineering, and surveying; administrative specializations; education; and medicine and health.

But, what of the other H-1B occupations?  Such uncommon H-1B occupations may include food service managers and music managers, among others.  These nontraditional H-1B “specialty occupations” are less often processed by USCIS and often pose a greater challenge for attorneys and their clients because they do not fit neatly with other “specialty occupations” that USCIS officers commonly see.  This is also part of a growing trend where the USCIS is viewing such occupations more skeptically, even if the record contains evidence favoring an approval.  It is helpful here to first define this doozy of a term.

8 CFR 214.2(h)(4) defines “specialty occupation” as one in which:

…requires theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge in fields of human endeavor including, but not limited to, architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts, and which requires the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher in a specific specialty, or its equivalent, as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States.

To hire a foreign worker under the H-1B category, the employer must show in its petition that the proffered position meets at least one of the following criteria:

  1. A baccalaureate or higher degree or its equivalent is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position;
  2. 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;
  3. The employer normally requires a degree or its equivalent for the position; or
  4. 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.

8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A)

Practitioners may find that despite efforts to indicate to the USCIS that the complexity and specialized nature of the proffered position meets the definition of an H-1B specialty occupation, the USCIS will nonetheless issue Requests for Evidence (RFEs) or denials. This is because the USCIS is unwilling to issue H-1B approvals for positions that do not are dissimilar to common H-1B occupations, such as computer programmers or analysts, and are unwilling to consider evidence of the complexity of occupations as evidence. RFEs often request information such as:

  • Documentation describing the business, such as business plans, reports, presentations, promotional materials, newspaper articles, website printouts, etc.
  • Detailed description of the proffered position, including approximate percentages of time for each duty that the beneficiary performs
  • Copies of contracts or work orders from every company that will utilize the beneficiary’s services to show the beneficiary will be performing duties of a specialty occupation
  • Documentation of how many other individuals in the employer’s organization are currently or were employed in the same position, along with evidence such as employees’ degrees and evidence of employment in the form of paystubs or tax forms

Yet, despite providing such evidence, the employer may nevertheless, receive a denial of the petition even after carefully responding to an RFE. Attorneys are left scratching their heads at some of the frustrating reasoning posited by USCIS that often ignores regulation and precedent.

One problematic course that USCIS continues to take is overly relying on the DOL’s Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) when determining whether a bachelor’s degree is a normal requirement for an occupation.  The OOH may guide the USCIS, but it does not in and of itself define what is a specialty occupation – only the regulations can do this. Moreover, the OOH should not be the only source USCIS should use when determining whether a bachelor’s degree is a normal requirement for a proffered position.  The USCIS should not ignore the employer’s statements and evidence of its normal practice of requiring a bachelor’s degree for a proffered position.   USCIS should analyze the proffered position based on the definition provided in 8 CFR 214.2(h)4)(iii)(A) instead of relying heavily on the OOH.  See Fred 26 Importers, Inc. v. DHS, 445 F. Supp.2d 1174, 1180-81 (C.D. Cal. 2006)(court reversed AAO where it failed to address expert and other evidence and simply asserted that a small company did not require specialized and complex duties); The Button Depot, Inc. v. DHS, 386 F Supp.2d 1140, 1148 (C.D. Cal. 2005)(court reversed AAO decision and found AAO had abused discretion when it applied unrelated regulatory provisions and failed to provide a basis for its conclusion that “it does not agreed with the opinion evidence submitted by the petitioner); Matter of – (AAO unpublished decision, Aug. 15, 2006, WAC 0417253199)(AAO reversed, finding that although OOH does not state a baccalaureate level education is the normal minimum requirement, the duties of the position are so specialized and complex that knowledge required to perform them is usually associated with the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher).

Second, the USCIS ignores expert opinions that determine the proffered position is a specialty occupation by virtue of its complex and unique nature.  In Matter of Chawathe, 25 I&N Dec. 369, 376 (AAO 2010) the AAO directs the USCIS to examine each piece of evidence for relevance, probative value, and credibility, individually and in the context of the entire record according to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard.  The USCIS may reject an expert opinion letter or give it less weight if it is not in accordance with other information in the record or if it is questionable.  See Matter of Caron Int’l, Inc., 19 I&N Dec. 791, 795 (Comm’r 1988).  However, if “the expert testimony [is] reliable, relevant, and probative as to the specific facts in issue” then the USCIS must not ignore it.  See Matter of Skirball Cultural Center, 25 I&N Dec. 799, 805-806 (AAO 2012).  In Matter of Skirball, the AAO reversed the USCIS’s denial of a P visa petition for a musical group, finding that the USCIS erroneously rejected expert opinion even though it did not question the credentials of the experts who provided opinions, take issue with the experts’ knowledge of the group’s musical skills, or find any reason to doubt the truthfulness of the testimony.  The reasoning in Matter of Skirball must be applied to the adjudication of H-1B nontraditional specialty occupations where often the employer must rely on expert opinion and atypical evidence to support their assertion that the duties of the position are so complex and unique that a bachelor’s degree is required to execute those duties. Thus the USCIS should not ignore or reject expert opinions especially if they are submitted in conjunction with other supporting evidence when the USCIS has no reason to doubt the veracity of the testimony.

Although it may be daunting to file H-1B petitions for nontraditional or uncommon specialty occupations, attorneys can overcome or avoid the USCIS’s sometimes inconsistent and wrong application of the standards in place in 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A). When preparing the H-1B petition, attorneys should research the occupation thoroughly and have a full understanding of the job duties, the nature of the organization, and the position’s standing within the company. The explanation of the duties should be detailed and, if possible, include the approximate percentage of time spent on each.  Evidence to support the petition should include information about the company, the nature of the industry, the complexity of the position, and proof that the beneficiary has obtained the education and/or experience level required for the position.  There may be times when the proffered position may fall within a category of occupation that the OOH has determined does not normally require a bachelor’s degree to perform. If this is the case, the employer should ensure that the appropriate occupation is used for the LCA and the employer should also consider submitting an expert opinion evaluating both the job duties of the proffered position and the education and experience of the beneficiary. Lastly, the employer may explain how its proffered position is analogous to similar jobs that either the OOH or case law has found to be specialty occupations. If one uses job postings by other employers requiring the same bachelor’s degree, USCIS can discount such evidence if the employers who posted such notices were not similar in size as the H-1B petitioning employer.

Until USCIS properly applies the standards for H-1B specialty occupations determined by the regulations and case law, employers of uncommon or nontraditional H-1B occupations must remain vigilant in their petition filings.  They must keep in mind that when faced with a nontraditional H-1B occupation, the USCIS may look only to the OOH for guidance.  Lastly, attorneys should provide adequate advice and warning regarding the filing of H-1B petitions for such nontraditional occupations and to prepare employers for fickle and nonsensical RFEs. Finally, attorneys must advise their clients that they must be prepared to seek administrative and even judicial review of erroneous denials.