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H-1B Cap Filing Aftermath: Evaluating the Fate of the Computer Programmer and the H-1B Dependent Employer

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 This memo rescinded an earlier memo of the Nebraska Service Center from 2000, which acknowledged that computer programming occupations were specialty occupations for H-1B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 reference computer programmers in the  DOL’s Occupational Outlook Handbook 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.

The fact that the guidance was issued just as employers had filed H-1B petitions to reach on the first day of the filing period, April 3, 2017, caused panic in many quarters. The media also suggested that the new guidance was aimed against India based IT firms who utilize most of the H-1B numbers each year. Such speculation was backed up by another announcement on the USCIS website entitled Putting American Workers First: USCIS Announces Further Measures to Detect H-1B Visa Fraud and Abuse. The announcement specifically indicated that USCIS would focus its resources on conducting site visits on employers who are dependent on H-1B workers and who place H-1B workers at client sites. It also set up an e mail where US workers could report alleged H-1B fraud and abuse. The DOJ also followed with an announcement cautioning employers who hire H-1B workers to not discriminate against American workers and that its Immigrants and Employee Rights division would vigorously enforce the anti-discrimination provision of the INA.  INA 274B prohibits citizenship, immigration status and national origin discrimination in hiring, firing or recruitment or referral for a fee; unfair documentary practices; retaliation and intimidation.  Not to be outdone by sister agencies, the DOL also put out a news release on April 4 stating that it would rigorously use its existing authority to initiate investigations of H-1B violators.

None of these announcements suggest anything new. The USCIS has for many years been critical of viewing computer programmers as a specialty occupation, especially if the H-1B worker receives level 1 wages. A search of non-precedent decisions on the Appeals Administrative Office website reveals a number of affirmations of denials of H-1B petitions for computer programmers over the years. This is not to suggest that a computer programmer will never be able to qualify for an H-1B visa, but the employer should not rely on the OOH and should be prepared to rebut the OOH findings that an associate’s degree would be adequate preparation for a computer programmer with respect to its niche position. In Fred 26 Importers Inc. v. DHS, a federal district court overturned a finding of the AAO that a Human Resource Manager did not qualify for an H-1B occupation as the OOH indicated that a broad range of disciplines, as opposed to a specialized discipline, could qualify a person for the occupation. The employer used expert witnesses to demonstrate that the position was complex, even in a small organization, to require a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field. If the employer’s business model requires assigning the H-1B worker at a third party client site, it is further important to demonstrate that both the petitioning employer and the client require a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field. See Defensor v. Meissner, 201 F.3d 384 (5th Cir 2000). At the same time, under the Neufeld Memo, the petitioning employer must additionally demonstrate that it and not the client exercises control over the H-1B worker’s employment. Moreover, not all computer occupations have received the same treatment by the OOH as computer programmers. For instance, according the OOH, a bachelor’s degree in computer science is a requirement to qualify as a computer systems analyst, although some employers may require bachelor’s degrees in business or liberal arts. With respect to software developers, the OOH categorically states that a bachelor’s degree in computer science or related fields is a minimum requirement. Hence, a software developer or computer systems analyst will fare better than a computer programmer, even at an entry level wage. It can also be argued that in every profession there is an entry level position, and that factor in itself should not undermine the ability of the employer to qualify the position for H-1B visa classification. If the position qualifies as a specialty occupation, then paying an entry level wage should not undermine it. If the position does not qualify as a specialty occupation for H-1B classification, then paying even at the highest wage level would not be able to salvage it.

Site visits of the FDNS are nothing new, and firms that heavily rely on H-1B workers who are placed at third party sites have been the focus in recent years. However, with respect to the USCIS’s intention to conduct site visits, the announcement states, “Targeted site visits will allow USCIS to focus resources where fraud and abuse of the H-1B program may be more likely to occur, and determine whether H-1B dependent employers are evading their obligation to make a good faith effort to recruit U.S. workers.” While it is true that H-1B dependent employers are obligated to recruit for US workers before filing H-1B petitions for foreign national workers, this obligation does not apply when a dependent employer files an H-1B petition for an exempt employee – one who is either paid $60,000 or higher or who has a master’s degree or higher in the specialty that is relevant to the position. The USCIS announcement, unfortunately,  is somewhat misleading, and a dependent employer who is not obligated to recruit because it has filed an H-1B petition for an exempt employee may be subject to a warrantless complaint or investigation. It is urged that the USCIS clarify this point in its announcement so that it can focus its resources on legitimate rather than frivolous complaints.

There is also no question that a US employer is prohibited from discriminating against an American worker in favor of an H-1B worker. However, in order to be found liable, it must be demonstrated that there was an intention to discriminate based on citizenship or national origin. If there was a lawful business objective to hire H-1B workers, or even contract with an IT consulting firm that uses H-1B workers, that would not be a legal basis to hold an employer liable under the anti-discrimination provisions of INA 274B. Only time will tell whether the DOJ intends to push the envelope further.

The USCIS on April 7, 2017 announced that the FY2018 H-1B cap had been reached. It is likely that more H-1B petitions will get rejected than accepted. Those petitions that get accepted, in the event that they face more scrutiny by virtue of being filed for computer programmer positions, will not outright get denied. The USCIS will issue a Request for Evidence, which allows the employer to demonstrate that the position qualifies for a specialty occupation. If there is a denial after that, the employer may file an appeal to the AAO, and if the appeal is dismissed, the employer can seek review in federal court. Under Darby v. Cisneros, an employer may directly pursue review in federal court and bypass the AAO.  A dependent employer who is the subject of a complaint for not recruiting US workers first has a rock solid defense if the employer filed an H-1B petition for exempt employees. Finally, employers must always hire objectively based on legitimate business criteria in order to stave off any allegations regarding discrimination. Although there are many challenges for employers filing H-1B petitions under the FY 2018 H-1B cap, they are not insurmountable.

 

 

Employer Not Always Obligated To Pay Return Transportation Cost Of Terminated H-1B Worker

In Vinayagam v. Cronous Solutions, Inc., ARB Case No. 15-045, ALJ Case No. 2013-LCA-029 (ARB Feb. 14, 2017) the Administrative Review Board held that an employer’s failure to pay return transportation costs home of a terminated H-1B employee was not fatal when the worker did not return to her home country on her own volition.

When filing a Labor Condition Application (LCA) – a necessary first step in the filing of an H-1B visa petition – the employer attests that it will pay the required wage to the H-1B nonimmigrant worker. See INA 212(n)(1)(A); 20 CFR 655.731(a). The required wage must be paid until there is a bona fide termination of the employment relationship. In order to demonstrate such a bona fide termination of the employment relationship, the ARB held in Amtel Group of Fla., Inc. v. Yongmahapakorn, ARB No. 04-087, ALJ No. 2004-LCA-0006 (ARB Sept. 29, 2006). that an employer must meet three requirements to effectuate a bona termination of the relationship under 20 CFR 655.731(c)(7)(ii). First, the employer must expressly terminate the employment relationship with the H-1B worker. Second, the employer must notify USCIS of the termination so that the USCIS can revoke its prior approval of the employer’s H-1B petition under 8 CFR 214.2(h)(11). Third, the employer must provide the H-1B worker with payment of return transportation home under INA 214(c)(5)(A) and 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(E). If the employer otherwise explicitly terminates the employment relationship, but fails to follow the second and third steps, the employer may still be obligated to pay the required wage for failure to effectuate a bona fide termination. Although in the real world the employer must only undertake step one, in the case of an H-1B worker, the employer must also take steps two and three that have been mandated by the Department of Labor (DOL).

It is the third prong that has been the subject of much interpretation.  Must an employer still offer to pay the return transportation costs even if the worker chooses to remain in the US on his or her own volition? In Vinayagam v. Cronous Solutions, the terminated H-1B worker did not leave the United States on her own volition and unsuccessfully applied for H-1B status through another employer. Prior to this unsuccessful attempt, the worker sought to apply for B-2 visa status, which was also denied. The employer under this scenario was not required to pay the return transportation costs home, and thus was not liable to continue to pay the required wage after the employer fulfilled steps one and two. This decision follows a line of other ARB decisions where the employer was not obligated to pay the return transportation costs where the H-1B worker had married a US citizen and adjusted her status to permanent residence or where the worker found an employer to file another H-1B petition and thus extend H-1B status through that employer or where the H-1B worker outright rejected the reimbursement. If the H-1B worker voluntarily terminates employment prior to the expiration of the authorized H-1B stay or is dismissed when the authorized stay has ended, the employer is not liable for return transportation costs. See Toia v. Gardner Family Care Corp., 2007-LCA-6 (April 25, 2008).

It is intriguing that the Department of Labor has latched on to USCIS rules for requiring a bona fide termination of employment. The employer’s obligation to pay the wage is an obligation under DOL rules, but in determining the employer’s ending of that obligation, the DOL has relied on the rules of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which includes notification to the USCIS that results in the revocation of the H-1B petition (8 CFR 214.2(h)(11) and payment of the return transportation home obligation (8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(E). Naomi Schorr has astutely observed that when one agency engages in interpreting and enforcing the rules of another agency, courts will not defer to that agency’s interpretation. See Schorr, It Makes You Want To Scream: Overstepping Bounds: The Department of Labor and the Bona Fide Termination of H-1B Employees, Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, Oct. 15, 2014. Indeed, in a 1999 exchange of correspondence between a private attorney and the INS, the response was that the “Service views the return transportation provision as a private contractual issue between the petitioner and the beneficiary. As a result, the Service has not developed any policies with respect to the questions that you have raised.” See Letter from Thomas W. Simmons, Chief, INS Business and Trade Services Branch to Robert A. Klipstein (May 20, 1999), reprinted in 70 Interpreter Releases 1140 (July 26, 1999).

While the USCIS does not give this rule any teeth, the DOL has chosen to enforce it against an employer if the employer cannot demonstrate that the H-1B worker chose to stay in the US on his or her own volition. In fact, notwithstanding Vinayagam v. Cronous Solutions, unless it is clearly indicated that the worker chooses to remain in the US, it would be prudent for the employer to give the benefit of doubt to the H-1B worker and offer the return transportation costs home. These cases have shown that the employer must always go through protracted litigation to establish that the H-1B worker voluntarily stayed on in the US in order to escape back wage liability. Moreover, the burden is on the employer to demonstrate whether it had a duty to provide the return transportation costs and whether it had satisfied that requirement. See Gupta v. Jain Software Consulting, Inc., ARB No. 05-008, ALJ No. 2004-LCA-039 (ARB Mar. 30, 2007).

The High Skilled Worker Rule that took effect on January 18, 2017 provides for a 60 day grace period to H-1B as well as other nonimmigrant workers holding E-1, E-2, E-3, H-1B1, L-1 or TN status. See 8 CFR 214.1(2). The 60 day grace period is indeed a salutary feature. Up until the rule took effect, whenever a worker in nonimmigrant status got terminated, they were immediately rendered to be in violation of status. Derivative family members, whose fortunes were attached to the principal’s, would also be rendered out of status upon the principal falling out status. Thus, the 60 day grace period not only gives the worker more time to leave the United States, but it also provides a window of opportunity to find another employer who can file an extension or change of status within the 60 day period. Similarly, the worker could also potentially change to some other status on his or her own, such as to F-1, after enrolling in a school.

The new 60 day grace period may incentivize the H-1B worker to remain in the US, and thus enable an employer to escape paying the return transportation costs. On other hand, it should not be viewed as a green light to never offer the return transportation costs home. While the 60 day grace period does allow a terminated worker some cushion in finding another employer in the US, it also provides a cushion for the worker to leave the United States less abruptly if terminated prior . In the latter situation, the employer’s failure to offer return transportation costs home could still render the employer liable for back wages as a result of not effectuating a bona fide termination.

Will the Disruption of the H-1B Lottery Force Change for the Better?

A class action lawsuit, Tenrec, Inc. v. USCIS, challenging the annual H-1B lottery recently overcame a motion to dismiss, and will move forward. There is a decent chance that the plaintiffs may prevail and employers will no longer be subject to the H-1B lottery. The annual H-1B visa cap forces employers to scramble way before the start of the new fiscal year, which is October 1, to file for H-1B visas, only to face the very likely prospect of being rejected by an opaque randomized lottery.

The lawsuit asserts that the H-1B lottery contravenes the law, and points to INA § 214(g)(3), which states that “Aliens who are subject to the numerical limitations of paragraph (1) shall be issued visas (or otherwise provided nonimmigrant status) in the order in which petitions are filed for such visas or status.” This suggests that the USCIS should be accepting all H-1B visas and putting them in a queue rather than rejecting them through a randomized H-1B lottery. The parallel provision, INA § 203(e)(1), for immigrant visas reads, “Immigrant visas made available under subsection (a) or (b) shall be issued to eligible immigrants in the order in which a petition in behalf of each such immigrant is filed…”  Although the wording of those two sections are virtually identical, the government rejects H-1B nonimmigrant visa petitions that do not get chosen in the lottery, but accepts all immigrant visa petitions and assigns a “priority date” based on the order they are filed, which in some cases is based on the underlying labor certification.  Unlike the H-1B visa, the immigrant visa petition is not rejected.  Instead, they wait in a line until there are sufficient visa numbers available prior to receiving an immigrant visa or being able to apply for adjustment of status in the United States.

The government in Tenrec, Inc. v. USCIS filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In its motion, the government argued that the individual plaintiffs did not have standing because only employers have standing to challenge the H-1B program. The employers too, according to the government, did not show sufficient injury and thus did not have standing.  In a September 22, 2016 decision, Judge Michael Simon rejected the government’s lack of standing claims on both counts. Judge Simon referenced other recent federal court decisions that have ruled that foreign workers who are beneficiaries of immigrant visa petitions have been allowed to challenge their denials, and be given notice of them. This trend has been discussed in my recent blog, Who Should Get Notice When the I-140 Petition Is Revoked? It’s The Worker, Stupid! What is interesting in Judge Simon’s decision is the notion that standing can also extend to nonimmigrant workers. As the recipient of an H-1B visa can become a permanent resident through subsequently filed applications following the grant of H-1B status, there is no distinction between the beneficiary of a nonimmigrant visa petition with an immigrant visa petition. Even if the individual H-1B visa plaintiffs cannot become permanent residents, Judge Simon noted that they are still “more than just a mere onlooker” because their status would be in jeopardy and would lose an opportunity to live and work in the United States, as well as enjoy life here. Judge Simon also held that the employers had standing notwithstanding that the H-1B lottery already occurred since it was likely that the employer could lose in next year’s lottery. This holding in itself is invaluable for providing standing to nonimmigrant visa holders in future challenges even if the plaintiffs are not victorious here.

Even if the plaintiffs succeeding in knocking out the H-1B lottery, they will not be able to readily access the H-1B program. The annual H-1B cap will still be limited to 65,000 per year for applicants with bachelor’s degree, and an additional 20,000 for those with master’s degrees. It will be somewhat similar to the priority date system for immigrant visas that face years of backlogs, and the EB-2 and EB-3 India backlogs is currently several decades long. Although the underlying labor condition application of an H-1B petition is valid for only three years, under a redesigned filing system devoid of the lottery, an LCA could potentially be submitted and activated once the priority date for that H-1B petition becomes current.

While the H-1B lottery benefits employers who file many petitions each year (as they can then at least hope to win some in the lottery), there is already a wait list for most, especially smaller employers who file for one employee.  If the employer loses two or three lotteries before getting a number for that prospective employee, this in any event becomes a de facto waiting list.   The fact that some lucky ones get in the first time does not mean that most will not be subject to a wait list. While a wait list system for all will be fairer than a randomized lottery for a lucky few, it will create pressure for the administration to tweak the system or for Congress to create more access to H-1B visas. Regarding tweaking the system, I have previously argued that beneficiaries of approved H-1B petitions on the wait list should on a case by case basis be given the opportunity to apply for interim immigration benefits such as deferred action or parole.

The U visa serves as a case in point for my idea. Congress only granted the issuance of 10,000 U visas annually to principal aliens under INA 214(p)(2). However, once the numerical limitation is reached, the USCIS does not reject the additional U visa petition like it does with the H-1B visa under the lottery. U-1 visa grantees are put on a waiting list and granted either deferred action if in the US or parole if they are overseas pursuant to 8 CFR 214.14(d)(2). The Adjudicators Field Manual at 39.1(d) explains how the waitlist works for U visa applicants:

2) Waiting list .

All eligible petitioners who, due solely to the cap, are not granted U-1 nonimmigrant status must be placed on a waiting list and receive written notice of such placement. Priority on the waiting list will be determined by the date the petition was filed with the oldest petitions receiving the highest priority. In the next fiscal year, USCIS will issue a number to each petition on the waiting list, in the order of highest priority, providing the petitioner remains admissible and eligible for U nonimmigrant status. After U-1 nonimmigrant status has been issued to qualifying petitioners on the waiting list, any remaining U-1 nonimmigrant numbers for that fiscal year will be issued to new qualifying petitioners in the order that the petitions were properly filed. USCIS will grant deferred action or parole to U-1 petitioners and qualifying family members while the U-1 petitioners are on the waiting list. USCIS, in its discretion, may authorize employment for such petitioners and qualifying family members.

While U visa recipients already in the United States on a wait list can seek deferred action, the USCIS has also recently agreed to grant parole to U visa petitioners and family members based overseas when the 10,000 annual limitation has been reached.

Why can’t the USCIS do the same with H-1B petitions by granting beneficiaries of H-1B petitions deferred action if they are within the United States or paroling them if they are overseas, along with discretionary work authorization? The grant of deferred action or parole of H-1B beneficiaries would be strictly conditioned on certain narrow criteria.    Critics of the H-1B program, and there are many, will howl and shriek that this is an end run around the annual H-1B limitation imposed by Congress.  But such criticism could be equally applicable to U visa applicants in queue, who are nevertheless allowed to remain in the United States. Of course, a compelling argument can be made for placing U visa beneficiaries on a waiting list through executive action, who are the unfortunate victims of serious crimes, as Congress likely intended that they be in the United States to aid criminal investigations and prosecutions. While H-1B wait listed applicants may not be in the same compelling situation as U visa applicants, a forceful argument can be made that many H-1B visa recipients contribute to the economic growth of the United States in order to justify being wait listed and receiving an interim benefit.

If the administration feels nervous about being further sued by anti-H-1B interest groups, after being forced to dismantle the H-1B lottery, perhaps it can limit the grant of deferred action or parole to those H-1B wait listed beneficiaries who can demonstrate that their inability to be in the United States and work for their employers will not be in the public interest. Or perhaps, those who are already in the United States, such as students who have received Optional Practical Training, be granted deferred action as wait listed H-1B beneficiaries. If the administration wishes to narrow the criteria further, it could give preference to those H-1B beneficiaries for whom the employer has started the green card process on their behalf. One could also throw in a requirement that the employer register under E-Verify in order to qualify, and this would expand E-Verify to many more employers, which is one of the government’s  goals as part of broader immigration reform.

Of course, people have gotten comfortable with the status quo, but the H-1B lottery is problematic and thus not worthy of preservation. By turning the lottery on its head, it is hoped that there will be real change for the better. Ideally, Congress should bring about change by creating more H-1B visa numbers, although given that the H-1B visa program has already been poisoned due to the misconception that H-1B workers take away US jobs, other restrictions in exchange for more H-1B numbers will become inevitable, such as forcing employers to recruit before filing for an H-1B visa or by creating more restrictions on dependent H-1B employers. Still, disruption is the order of the day, and if we have witnessed seismic disruption in the taxi industry through Uber or the hotel industry through Airbnb, why not also disrupt the H-1B lottery through a lawsuit in hope for positive change? As Victor Hugo famously said – “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Who would have imagined a few years ago that those who had come to the United States prior to the age of 16 and were not in status would receive deferred action and be contributing to the United States today through their careers and tax dollars? Or who would have imagined that H-4 spouses could seek work authorization or that beneficiaries of I-140 petitions who are caught in the green card employment-based backlogs are likely to be able to apply for work authorization, even if the circumstances are less than perfect, under a proposed rule?  Moreover, the new proposed parole entrepreneur parole rule is also worthy of emulation in place of  a disrupted H-1B lottery program. If deserving entrepreneurs can receive parole, so can deserving H-1B beneficiaries who are waiting in a queue that may be more fair than the lottery.  Of course, it goes without saying that executive action is no substitute for action by Congress. Any skilled worker immigration reform proposal must not just increase the number of H-1B visas but must also eliminate the horrendous green card backlogs in the employment-based preferences for those born in India and China.  But until Congress acts, it is important to press this administration and the next with good ideas. The lawsuit to end the H-1B lottery is one such good idea. It should be embraced rather than feared in the hope that it will first dismantle and then resurrect a broken H-1B visa program.

Can The H-1B Visa Be Saved Through Executive Action?

The annual H-1B VISA cap forces employers to scramble way before the start of the new fiscal year, which is October 1, to file for H-1B visas, only to face the very likely project of being rejected by a randomized lottery. This is no way to treat US employers who pay thousands of dollars in legal and filing fees, along with all the steps they need to take in being in compliance. The whole concept of a nonsensical quota reminds us of Soviet era central planning, and then to inject a casino style of lottery into the process, makes the process even more unfair. Under the lottery, unsuccessful H-1B petitions may be every year with no guarantee of being selected. In fact, notwithstanding recent criticisms, the H-1B visa program has a positive impact on jobs, wages and the economy. Unfortunately, this time too, it is predicted that there will be far more H-1B visa petitions received when compared to the 65,000 H-1B visa cap plus the additional 20,000 H-1B cap for those who have graduated with advanced degrees from US universities. To have only less than a 30% chance to secure an H-1B visa number under the 65,000 cap renders the program totally unviable for employers and H-1B visa applicants.

I was thus heartened to read a blog by esteemed colleague Brent Renison for suggesting that the H-1B lottery may be illegal. He points to INA § 214(g)(3), which states that “Aliens who are subject to the numerical limitations of paragraph (1) shall be issued visas (or otherwise provided nonimmigrant status) in the order in which petitions are filed for such visas or status.” According to Renison, this suggests that the USCIS should be accepting all H-1B visas and putting them in a queue rather than rejecting them through a randomized H-1B lottery. Renison also points to a parallel provision, INA § 203(e)(1),  which reads, “Immigrant visas made available under subsection (a) or (b) shall be issued to eligible immigrants in the order in which a petition in behalf of each such immigrant is filed…”  Although the wording of those two sections are virtually identical, the government rejects H-1B petitions that do not get chosen in the lottery, but accepts all immigrant visa petitions and assigns a “priority date” based on the order they are filed, which in some cases is based on the underlying labor certification.  Unlike the H-1B visa, the immigrant visa petition is not rejected.  Instead, they wait in a line until there are sufficient visa numbers available prior to receiving an immigrant visa or being able to apply for adjustment of status in the United States.

Renison is contemplating filing a class action to challenge the H-1B visa lottery under 8 CFR 214.2(h)(8). I commend him for this initiative, and now take the liberty to propose an even more audacious idea, building upon his brilliant idea. If he is successful in getting USCIS to cease the H-1B lottery process, and accepting all H-1B petitions and placing them in a queue, then the USCIS should approve such petitions prior to placing them in a queue, but only allowing either the grant of an H-1B visa or a change of status to H-1B when a visa number becomes available. However, beneficiaries of approved H-1B petitions on the wait list should also on a case by case basis be given the opportunity to apply for interim immigration benefits such as deferred action or parole.

The U visa serves as a case in point for my idea. Congress only granted the issuance of 10,000 U visas annually to principal aliens under INA 214(p)(2). However, once the numerical limitation is reached, the USCIS does not reject the additional U visa petition like it does with the H-1B visa under the lottery. U-1 visa grantees are put on a waiting list and granted either deferred action if in the US or parole if they are overseas pursuant to 8 CFR 214.14(d)(2). The Adjudicators Field Manual at 39.1(d) explains how the waitlist works for U visa applicants:

2) Waiting list .

All eligible petitioners who, due solely to the cap, are not granted U-1 nonimmigrant status must be placed on a waiting list and receive written notice of such placement. Priority on the waiting list will be determined by the date the petition was filed with the oldest petitions receiving the highest priority. In the next fiscal year, USCIS will issue a number to each petition on the waiting list, in the order of highest priority, providing the petitioner remains admissible and eligible for U nonimmigrant status. After U-1 nonimmigrant status has been issued to qualifying petitioners on the waiting list, any remaining U-1 nonimmigrant numbers for that fiscal year will be issued to new qualifying petitioners in the order that the petitions were properly filed. USCIS will grant deferred action or parole to U-1 petitioners and qualifying family members while the U-1 petitioners are on the waiting list. USCIS, in its discretion, may authorize employment for such petitioners and qualifying family members.

Why can’t the USCIS do the same with H-1B petitions by granting beneficiaries of H-1B petitions deferred action if they are within the United States or paroling them if they are overseas, along with discretionary work authorization? The grant of deferred action or parole of H-1B beneficiaries would be strictly conditioned on the basis that the employer would comply with the terms and conditions of the H-1B petition and the attestations made in the underlying Labor Condition application.   Critics of the H-1B petition, and there are obviously many, will howl and shriek that this is an end run around the annual H-1B limitation imposed by Congress.  But such criticism could be equally applicable to U visa applicants in queue, who are nevertheless allowed to remain in the United States. Of course, a compelling argument can be made for placing U visa beneficiaries on a waiting list through executive action, who are the unfortunate victims of serious crimes, as Congress likely intended that they be in the United States to aid criminal investigations and prosecutions. While H-1B wait listed applicants may not be in the same compelling situation as U visa applicants, a forceful argument can be made that many H-1B visa recipients contribute to the economic growth of the United States in order to justify being wait listed and receiving an interim benefit.

If the administration feels nervous about being further sued, after being forced to dismantle the H-1B lottery, perhaps it can limit the grant of deferred action or parole to those H-1B wait listed beneficiaries who can demonstrate that their inability to be in the United States and work for their employers will not be in the public interest. Or perhaps, those who are already in the United States, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) students who have received Optional Practical Training, and are making significant contributions, be granted deferred action as wait listed H-1B beneficiaries. Such deferred action should only be granted if they are well within the three year term of the approved H-1B petition. If the administration wishes to narrow the criteria further, it could give preference to those H-1B beneficiaries for whom the employer has started the green card process on their behalf.

While this proposal will likely not get a standing ovation on first brush, and the best solution is for Congress to either expand the H-1B cap or get rid of it altogether,  it is important to take comfort in Victor Hugo’s famous words – “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Who would have imagined a few years ago that those who had come to the United States prior to the age of 16 and were not in status would receive deferred action and be flaming successes today? Or who would have imagined that H-4 spouses could seek work authorization or that beneficiaries of I-140 petitions who are caught in the green card employment-based backlogs are likely to be able to apply for work authorization, even if the circumstances are less than perfect, under a proposed rule? Of course, it goes without saying that executive action is no substitute for action by Congress. Any skilled worker immigration reform proposal must not just increase the number of H-1B visas but must also eliminate the horrendous green card backlogs in the employment-based preferences for those born in India and China.  But until Congress acts, it is important to press the administration with good ideas, and to build upon brilliant ideas proposed by others. Good ideas never disappear, and have the uncanny knack of resurfacing again and again, until they come into fruition to benefit deserving immigrants who contribute to America.

Senator Grassley “Hacks” The H-1B Visa For Foreign Entrepreneurs

The H-1B visa program is in trouble. It has become everyone’s favorite whipping boy. Critics rail against the H-1B for bringing in so called cheap labor to the US, but ignoring the fact that an employer is required to pay the prevailing wage set by the Department of Labor. Some of the wages mandated by the DOL at www.flcdatacenter.com are unusually high. Take for example the position of Marketing Managers in New York City. A Marketing Manager on an H-1B visa would need to be paid an entry level wage of $108,493 year. The level two wage is $144, 123 per year, the level three is $179, 774 per year and level four is at a whopping $215, 405 per year. This is hardly cheap labor. The employer on top of these wages must also pay costs towards the H-1B visa including lawyer fees and excessively high filing fees in excess of $6,000. If the employer is dependent on H-1B or L workers, it has to additionally pay a super fee of $4,000. Only an employer who wishes to employ a highly skilled foreign worker will go through all the expenses, as well as all the regulatory procedures, under the H-1B visa.

The H-1B visa serves as the main entry point for a skilled foreign worker to aspire to work and immigrate to the United States. There already exists a shortage of H-1B visas with a meager annual cap of 65,000 plus another 20,000 for those with advanced degrees from US universities. If the H-1B visa is further restricted, there will be no entry point whatsoever. Foreign students graduating from top US universities will not get a chance to work and remain in the United States. The immigration system is already broken because of restricted pathways for non-citizens to acquire permanent residency, resulting in backlogs lasting decades. If the entry point through the H-1B visa is cut off, then we will truly have an unworkable immigration system that will no longer attract talent to the United States.

To rub further salt in the wound, Senator Grassley on February 26, 2016 wrote an angry missive to USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez protesting the use of the H-1B visa by entrepreneurs, which he likens to one who tries to “hack” the H-1B program. This is in direct contradiction to the USCIS’s well intentioned Entrepreneur Pathways portal that provides guidance on legitimate ways a founder can apply for a nonimmigrant visa through his or her own startup. According to Grassley, this is abusive and illegal, but he is wrong. Note that there is no independent startup visa in our immigration system, although America has spectacularly succeeded off the success of entrepreneurial ventures, many of which have been founded by people who were not born in the United States. Sergey Brin of Google is a prime example. Startups have to compete with more established companies within the immigration system, and where there is already a bias against the small business. A startup may be even more rudimentary than an established small business and thus more susceptible to being viewed as a fraudulent artifice. Startups may not yet be generating a revenue stream as they are developing new technologies that may lead to products and services later on. Many have received financing through venture capital, angel investors or through “Series A and B” rounds of shares. Startups may also operate in more informal spaces, such as the residences of the founders (with regular meetings at Starbucks) instead of a commercial premise. Some are also operating in “stealth mode” so as not to attract the attention of competitors and may not display the usual bells and whistles such as a website or other marketing material. Startups may also not have payroll records since founders may be compensated in stock options. Still, such startups are legitimate companies that should be able to support H-1B, L, O or other visa statuses. While, in the past, USCIS has often been accused by critics of harboring a systemic bias against small business, the Entrepreneur Pathways portal provides guidance for USCIS offices to adjudicate such H-1B petitions more favorably.

Grassley has now thrown the wrench into the works of such an entrepreneur trying to “hack” an H-1B visa. My esteemed colleague Tahmina Watson clarifies in a news article that Grassley misinterprets “hack”, which in the tech world “is a word of respect in which one finds a solution to a complicated problem.” Grassley even has the chutzpah to accuse established universities of colluding with entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, his letter is not backed up by the black letter INA provisions which support these sorts of collaborations between universities and entrepreneurs under the H-1B visa.

Under INA 214(g)(6), it is permissible for an entrepreneur to be employed by a cap-exempt employer such as a university on a part-time basis and then be able to obtain an H-1B, without being counted under the annual H-1B cap, through his or her own startup. Under INA 214(g)(5), an H-1B worker who is sponsored through a startup entity is not counted under the H-1B cap lottery if he or she is employed “at” a cap-exempt institution of higher education or is employed “at” a non-profit affiliated to an institution of higher education. While it is true that 8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(ii) requires the existence of an employer-employee relationship for the H-1B visa through a startup, this includes indicia such as the employer’s ability to “hire, pay, fire, supervise, or otherwise control the work of such employee.” It is the Neufeld Memo that elevates the right of control over all the other factors set forth in the regulation. Still, it is possible to invoke old decisions that recognize the separate existence of the corporate entity. It is well established that a corporation is a separate and distinct legal entity from its owners and stockholders. See Matter of M, 8 I&N Dec. 24, 50 (BIA 1958, AG 1958); Matter of Aphrodite Investments Limited, 17 I&N Dec. 530 (Comm.1980); and Matter of Tessel, 17 I&N Dec. 631 (Act. Assoc. Comm. 1980).  As such, a corporation, even if it is owned and operated by a single person, may hire that person, and the parties will be in an employer-employee relationship. This point needs to be brought out when advancing an H-1B for an entrepreneur. Still, we acknowledge that the H-1B petition may have more success when there is another investor or shareholder, and the beneficiary is not the sole owner of the entity. That person may be able to exercise control over the H-1B beneficiary, even if he or she has a minority interest. It may not be necessary to show that the other individual or entity has the power to discipline the beneficiary, but only that this person can exercise negative control over the beneficiary’s decisions. There is nothing preventing the other individual from being a family member, and the shareholder or director also need not be residing in the US.

Difficult as it already is to gain an H-1B through a startup, Senator Grassley is needlessly thwarting the intent of Congress under the H-1B visa program to attract entrepreneurs who will only benefit the country. And this is being done when we have such a paltry number of visas. With respect to H-1B filings under the FY2017 H-1B cap, some are of the opinion that there will be fewer H-1B filings because of the increase in the super fee from $2,000 to $4,000 and also since the F-1 Optional Practical Training program is vulnerable to attack in litigation. I completely disagree. The increase in the fee to $4000 will not deter certain employers dependent on H-1B or L employees from filing H-1B cases as there still continues to be a lack of skills in the US workforce,  and the need to execute and manage transformative IT projects with a skilled foreign IT workforce. Most of corporate America relies on the very employers who depend on skilled H-1B workers and have been unfairly penalized with the $4,000+ fee to keep their business and operations humming, which in turn benefit the American consumer. An increase in the fee thus will not be daunting whatsoever as the stakes are truly high for both IT consulting firms and most of corporate America.

Also, the prospects of the STEM or regular OPT being held invalid by a court create further uncertainty for the foreign entrepreneur. Fortunately, the likelihood of the court invalidating F-1 OPT is slim since the DHS has now allayed the court’s concern by proposing regulations for notice and comment under the Administrative Procedures Act. If at all there is any uncertainty with respect to OPT, entrepreneurs will be more concerned and will want to file H-1B petitions sooner than later while OPT is still in effect in order to ensure that there vital foreign worker can still be employed. This will create additional pressure on the H-1B cap, unless they are doing so in collaboration with universities and are seeking H-1B cap exemption.

All this demonstrates the need for more H-1B numbers rather than less as H-1B workers, including entrepreneurs, are essential for our economic growth and prosperity. The H-1B visa provides the entry point for someone to work in the United States, and in the absence of a special startup visa, the H-1B visa also serves an additional important purpose. Many universities have created programs to attract entrepreneurs and collaborate with them, so that they can legitimately take advantage of gaining H-1B cap exemption through INA 214(g)(5) and 214(g)(6). Senator Grassley’s letter may discourage USCIS adjudicators from granting H-1B visas filed by entrepreneurs, despite favorable policy guidance through Entrepreneur Pathways and provisions in the INA that provide cap exemption. Still, the USCIS should be assured that there is a sufficient legal basis to approve such H-1B petitions, and there is also undoubtedly a great policy argument, which Grassley overlooks, to allow entry of promising foreign entrepreneurs into the US in the hope that their startups will succeed, which in turn will create jobs and benefit the US economy.

A Trap For The Unwary: Equivalent Degrees And Alternate Requirements In Labor Certification Applications

When a foreign national has a three year degree instead of a four year degree, or has no degree, and is able to establish an equivalent degree through a combination of education and work experience, or only through work experience, it is important that the PERM labor certification application be carefully drafted. While an equivalent degree might pass muster for an H-1B visa, it will not always for a labor certification and the subsequent I-140 immigrant visa petition.

20 CFR §656.17(h) requires that an alternative requirement must be substantially equivalent to the primary requirement of the job opportunity in a labor certification application. If the foreign national does not meet the primary job requirement, and while already employed by the sponsoring employer, only meets the alternative requirement, the labor certification will be denied unless the application states that any suitable combination of education, training or experience is acceptable (emphasis added). 20 CFR §656.17(h)(4)(ii) essentially adopts the holding of BALCA in Francis Kellogg, 1994-INA-00465, although in that case the primary and alternative requirements, namely, experience as a cook or salad maker, were not substantially equivalent, thereby necessitating that the employer accept any suitable combination of education, training or experience. In contrast to Kellogg, 20 CFR §656.17(h) requires consideration of this language even if there is substantial equivalence between the primary and alternative requirement.

Fortunately, if this language does not appear on the form, it is no longer fatal and practitioners can challenge a denial if the sole reason for the denial was the failure to insert this “magic language” on the application. In Federal Insurance Co., 2008-PER-00037 (BALCA Feb. 20, 2009) the fact that the Kellogg language did not appear on the form could not be a ground for denial as there is no space on the ETA-9089 form for such language; and the Kellogg language also does not need to appear in recruitment materials. BALCA in Federal Insurance held that a denial would offend fundamental fairness and due process under HealthAmerica, 2006-PER-0001 (BALCA July 18, 2006). HealthAmerica is a seminal BALCA decision, which rejected the certifying officer’s (CO) denial of the labor certification based on a typographical error recording a Sunday advertisement on the form, although the employer possessed actual tear sheets of the advertisement. BALCA rejected the CO’s position that no new evidence could be submitted as the advertisement tear sheets were part of the PERM compliance recordkeeping requirement and thus was constructively submitted by the employer.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Kellogg magic language is not required, DOL’s rigid insistence that alternate requirements be substantially similar becomes especially problematic when a position requires the minimum of a bachelor’s degree but the foreign national qualifies based on equivalent work experience. It is important to draft PERM labor certification applications being aware of this pitfall, as well as the advertisements, so as to avoid a denial. Globalnet Management, 2009-PER-00110 (BALCA Aug. 6, 2009) is illustrative of this problem. In Globalnet Management,, BALCA held that a bachelor’s degree plus two years of experience was not substantially equivalent to 14 years of experience. BALCA did not accept the argument that the alternative requirement of 14 years of experience comported with the well-established formula to determine equivalency under the H-1B visa, three years of experience is equal to one year of education under 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(D)(5), and held that the primary and alternative requirements were not substantially equivalent. BALCA relied on Field Memorandum No. 48-94 that set forth the years under the Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) system for different educational attainments. Therefore, the appropriate alternative for a position requiring a B.S. degree plus two years of experience would have been four years of experience rather than 14 years of experience. While BALCA noted that 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(D)(5) may be persuasive in the absence of other guidance, citing Syscorp International, 1989-INA-00212, it nevertheless relied on Field Memo No. 48-94 in affirming the denial of the labor certification.

One reason why practitioners still include an alternative requirement relating to an equivalent degree is to ensure that the requirement is consistent with the H-1B visa petition. It is not unusual to qualify a foreign national for an H-1B visa who may have the equivalent of a three year degree, and then makes up the fourth year through the equivalent of three years of experience. The following language, which previously passed muster would now put into jeopardy ETA-9089 applications that define an equivalent degree, as follows: “Employer will accept a three year bachelor’s degree and three years of experience as being equivalent to one year of college.” Under the reasoning employed in Globalnet, this assumes that the alternative requirement would involve 12 years of SVP lapsed time while a bachelor’s degree would only require two years of SVP lapsed time. The employer faces a Hobson’s choice. If the employer does not include what it means by an equivalent degree on the ETA-9089, the subsequent I-140 petition will fail. If an employer requires a bachelor’s degree, and if the foreign national does not have the equivalent of a four year degree, and the ETA-9089 does not include a definition with respect to what it means by an equivalent degree, USCIS will assume that the employer required a four year degree and the foreign national would not be able to qualify for the position by virtue of not possessing such a degree.

On the other hand, in light of Globalnet it no longer remains viable to insist on consistency between the H-1B and the labor certification. Hence, if the primary requirement is a bachelor’s degree and two years of experience, and the foreign national does not have a degree whatsoever, the substantially equivalent alternative that would be acceptable to DOL would be four years of experience, as opposed to 14 years of experience. There may be some concern that requiring this formula on the labor certification, which may pass muster for DOL, may still be problematic when the alien has filed an I-140 petition and is also extending the H-1B visa using the “3 for 1” equivalency formula to establish the equivalent degree to qualify for the H-1B occupation. There is some anecdotal evidence of the USCIS questioning the extension of the H-1B visa when the I-140 petition involving the same position did not require a degree.  However, if this issue comes up during an H-1B adjudication, it should be argued that the discrepancy lies in the USCIS regulations and USCIS interpretations relating to H-1B and I-140 petitions, not in the beneficiary’s job or the beneficiary’s qualifications. USCIS ought not to deny an H-1B solely because a beneficiary who has been classified for an H-1B visa through an equivalent degree, either based on a combination of education and experience, or purely through a requirement of 12 plus years of experience, is classified on an I-140 under the EB-3 skilled worker preference requiring something less than a bachelor’s degree.

Finding ways to escape the Globalnet trap (and to achieve consistency with the H-1B) have not been successful. In Microsoft Corporation, 2011-PER-02563 (October 16, 2012), the employer indicated in items H.4 through H.7 in the ETA 9089 that its requirements for the position was a Bachelor’s degree or foreign educational equivalent in Comp. Sci., Eng., Math, Physics, Business or related field and six months of experience in the job offered or in a computer-related occupation or student school project experience. The employer indicated in item H.8 that there was an acceptable alternate combination of education and experience, and specified that it would accept 3 years of work experience for every year missing from a four year college degree. The CO denied on grounds that the alternative requirement was not substantially similar to the primary requirement. When the employer appealed to BALCA, one of its arguments was that 20 CFR §656.17(h)(4)(i) did not apply as it was accepting an alternate combination of education and experience in H.8-C, rather than an alternate experience requirement. This argument, unfortunately, was shot down, since the employer created an alternate requirement by indicating in H.10 that it would require three years of work experience for every year of missing college education. The following extract from the BALCA decision in Microsoft Corporation is worth noting:

The Employer completed item H.8 indicating it would accept an alternate combination of education and experience, but that there was no alternate experience requirement. The Employer, however, completed box H.14 indicating that it will accept three years of work experience for every year of missing education from a four year college degree. Although not listed in item H.8C, box H.14 indicates that the position has, in effect, an alternate experience requirement which varies from zero to twelve depending on the level of education attained by the applicant. Therefore, the CO correctly applied § 656.17(h)(4)(i) in determining whether the alternate experience requirement is substantially equivalent to the primary requirement.

The reason why labor certifications of this sort stumble is because there is an alternative requirement, thus triggering 20 CFR §656.17(h)(4)(i). The employer can arguably require the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree as a sole requirement, rather than insist on a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent of such a degree, by checking No to H.6 and Yes to H.10 in ETA 9089, and explaining the equivalency formula in H.14. See Matter of DNP America LLC, 2012-PER-00335 (Oct. 6 2015) (employer properly answered No to H.6 because it did not require experience in the offered position, and was instead requiring experience in a similar position, which it appropriately indicated in H.10).   This strategy too is likely to fail as the DOL may argue that an alternate requirement was created in H.10, as in Microsoft, although BALCA has yet to rule on such a fact pattern where the labor certification expresses one requirement, rather than a primary and alternate requirement.

While achieving consistency between the H-1B and the educational requirements on the ETA 9089 may be impossible based degree equivalencies through work experience, it behooves the employer to at least frame the alternate requirement appropriately as being substantially similar to the primary requirement so as to avoid a denial of the labor certification. For foreign nationals who have no degree and have qualified for their H-1B visa status through 12 years of work experience, including the formulaic “3 for 1” year rule as a way to express the equivalency on the labor certification will most certainly be fatal. Instead, this author has experienced success when the employer required a bachelor’s degree in the specialized field as a primary requirement, and as an alternate, required two years of experience in the specialized field in lieu of a bachelor’s degree. This is consistent with DOL’s interpretation under Kellogg and 20 CFR §656.17(h)(4)(i) that the primary requirement of a bachelor’s degree (requiring 2 years of SVP time) is substantially equivalent to  the alternate requirement (which is two years of experience). If the position requires two years of experience in addition to a bachelor’s degree, then the alternate requirement could be 4 years of experience in lieu of a bachelor’s degree.  Similarly, when a foreign national has a three year degree, the best practice is to require either a 3 or 4 year bachelor’s degree plus the relevant experience.

Navigating immigration law is already challenging, and it becomes increasingly more so when one is dealing with the DOL and the USCIS, who are committed to different standards relating to equivalency. What is worse is that the goal posts are constantly moved, and what may have been acceptable previously is unbeknownst to anyone suddenly not. Until both the agencies settle their differences, or legislation forces them to do so, the immigration practitioner will need to be constantly threading the needle when representing foreign clients with equivalent degrees in order to avoid a labor certification denial and successfully obtain permanent residency.

[This is a shorter version of a forthcoming article in ILW’s PERM Book III (High Tech/IT Edition, Ed. Joel Stewart). The blog is for informational purposes only and should not be viewed as a substitute for legal advice]

PUTTING DISNEY AND H-1B VISAS IN PERSPECTIVE

By Cyrus D. Mehta

Most who read Julia Preston’s New York Times article on Disney laying off its qualified programmers to be replaced with Indian  programmers on H-1B visas at HCL America are understandably outraged. The fact that Disney axed its employees – an iconic American  company that has promoted happiness, gentleness  and well being– has let down people even more. There have been more than 3,000 mostly angry comments to the article.

If we put aside the Indian H-1B worker for a minute, no one will doubt that it is business reality for companies to contract out many of their functions, such as IT, accounting or human resources. This practice is not limited to employers using foreign labor, and it is a widespread practice for companies to cut costs by reducing overhead such as payroll and benefits. Would there be similar outrage if an American law firm contracted away its human resources functions and stopped hiring additional HR personnel? Or if an entrepreneur wanted to sell a newly designed stroller with interesting gizmos in the US market, but arranged to have the manufacturing done in China? While we all feel badly for the American workers who may have been laid off, this is an unavoidable part of the quantum advances that have been made in globalization and the information technology revolution, which does not just involve access to foreign skilled labor (even if outside the United States) but even automation and robotics. Tom Friedman once famously said this in his NYT column “Average is Over”:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

This is not to suggest that the laid off American workers in the Disney episode were average, but it is fervently hoped that the benefits that accrue in contracting away functions in this new era of globalization will allow companies to engage in innovations that will  ultimately benefit consumers, which in turn will create more, albeit different, jobs in the United States. Even Disney said that after its reorganization that allowed it to focus on more innovations, it had a net gain of 70 jobs and has created 30,000 new jobs in the past decade.

While the media highlights the cases of Disney and SoCalwhere US workers are laid off and replaced by H-1B workers of an IT consulting company, most employers hire H-1B workers to supplement their workforce and not to replace their workforce. The H-1B visa cap is too small with only a total of 85,000 annual slots, and I personally have represented employers and  talented H-1B workers who can no longer be employed because they were not selected under the H-1B visa lottery. It is unfortunate that US employers lost talented foreign workers, many of whom have been educated at US universities. Lower costs, as is commonly believed,  is not the driving factor in hiring H-1B workers . The employer has to pay the higher of the prevailing wage or the actual wage it pays similarly situated workers, and so it is generally difficult for an H-1B worker to replace a US worker because they are cheaper. The employer has to also pay filing fees ranging from upwards of $2,325 to $5550, plus lawyers’ fees, besides the mandated prevailing wage.

Contrary to how the H-1B visa program is portrayed in the media, an employer does not have to first find a US worker before hiring an H-1B worker, or be concerned about displacing American workers at client locations such as Disney,  unless the employer is dependent on H-1B workers or has been found to have been a willful violator. See INA 212(n)(1)(E), (F) and (G) & INA 212(n)(3)(A). But even a dependent H-1B employer or willful violator need not recruit for a US worker first, or be concerned about displacement,  if it pays the H-1B worker over $60,000 or the worker has a Master’s degree. See INA 212(n)(3)(B).  The employer has to pay the higher of the prevailing or the actual wage among the workers that it employs and not which Disney employs. The replacement H-1B worker relating to the skill needed for Disney’s new technology platform need not have 10 years of experience, but probably less experience, and can be paid accordingly but still at the prevailing wage.

Critics of the H-1B program seize upon INA 212(n)(1)(A)(ii), which  states that an employer “will provide working conditions for such [an H-1B] nonimmigrant that will not adversely affect the working conditions of workers similarly employed.”  They argue that it is this provision that renders what happened at Disney to be in violation of the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law.  But this is hardly the case. INA 212(n)(1)(A)(ii) represents the second of four attestations that a non-dependent employer makes on a Labor Condition Application. 20 CFR 655.732(b) defines “working conditions” to “include matters such as hours, shifts, vacation periods, and benefits such as seniority-based preferences for training programs and work schedules.” The first attestation is that the employer agrees to pay the higher of the prevailing or actual wage. The third attestation that the employer makes is that there is no strike or lock-out in the occupational classification at the place of employment. The fourth and final attestation requires the employer to provide notice to the bargaining representative, and if none exists, then it must be posted at the place of employment for 10 days.

INA 212(n)(1)(A)(ii) does not mandate that the employer has to first recruit US workers. Elsewhere in INA 212(n) it is clear that only a dependent employer or one found to be a willful violator, who has no exempt H-1B workers, is required to recruit US workers and be concerned about displacing American workers at client sites. See INA 212(n)(1)(E), (F) and (G). While it intuitively makes sense for the employer to be required to test the US labor market before hiring all H-1B workers and be concerned about displacing a US worker, the H-1B visa is a temporary visa, and there is also the countervailing policy interest for employers  to be able to expeditiously hire foreign national workers to urgently execute projects. If they wish to sponsor them for permanent residence, there is an elaborate procedure for the employer to first certify that there was no willing or qualified worker for the position. H-1B workers have to also be paid the higher of the prevailing or actual wage, and at times the prevailing wage mandated by the Department of Labor seems to be higher than what it is in reality in many occupations.

The use of IT consulting companies is widespread in America (and even the US government contracts for their services), and was acknowledged by Congress when it passed the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 (AVWIA) by creating onerous additional attestations for H-1B dependent employers. The current enforcement regime has sufficient teeth to severely punish bad actors.  IT consulting employers who hire professional workers from India unfortunately seem to be getting more of a rap for indiscriminately using up the H-1B visa. However, it is this very business model has provided reliability to companies in the United States and throughout the industrialized world to obtain top-drawer talent quickly with flexibility and at affordable prices that benefit end consumers and promote diversity of product development. This is what the oft-criticized “job shop” or “body shop” readily provides. By making possible a source of expertise that can be modified and redirected in response to changing demand, uncertain budgets, shifting corporate priorities and unpredictable fluctuations in the business cycle itself, the pejorative reference to them as “job shop” is, in reality, the engine of technological ingenuity on which progress in the global information age largely depends.  Such a business model is also consistent with free trade, which the US promotes vehemently to other countries (including the protection of intellectual property rights of its pharmaceutical companies that keep life saving drugs high), but seems to restrict when it applies to service industries located in countries such as India that desire to do business in the United States through their skilled personnel. US companies and IT consulting companies should engage in more public relations efforts to highlight the overall benefits of their collaborations, which in the case of the Disney episode was admittedly not enough.

By continuing to limit and stifle the H-1B program, US employers will remain less competitive and will not be able to pass on the benefits to consumers. We need more H-1B visa numbers rather than less. We also need to respect H-1B workers rather than deride them, even if they work at IT consulting company, as they too wish to abide by the law and to pursue their dreams in America.  The best way to reform the H-1B program is to provide more mobility to H-1B visa workers. By providing more mobility, which includes being able to obtain a green card quickly,  H-1B workers will not be stuck with the employer who brought them on the H-1B visa, and this can also result in rising wages within the occupation as a whole. Mobile foreign workers will also be incentivized to start their own innovative companies in America, which in turn will result in more jobs. This is the best way to reform the H-1B visa program, rather than to further shackle it with stifling laws and regulations, labor attestations and quotas.

The AAO on H-1B Visa Credential Evaluations and the ‘Three-For-One” Rule

As immigration practitioners, we file H-1B visa petitions all the time. We know that in each petition, the employer must demonstrate that the position requires a professional in a specialty occupation and that the foreign national – the intended employee – has the required qualifications. It’s become common knowledge that progressively responsible work experience may substitute for any deficiency in the foreign national’s education and everyone is pretty comfortable with the equivalency ratio of three years of work to one year of college training (the “three-for-one” rule). Under this rule, a foreign national with twelve years of work experience could be deemed to possess the equivalent of a four-year US baccalaureate degree and therefore qualified to hold a specialty occupation.Going forward on new H-1B petitions and especially as we gear up for the upcoming H-1B cap season, a recent non-precedent decision by the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) discussing USCIS’ recognition of any years of college-credit for a foreign national’s training and/or work experience is worthy of some careful review as it provides detailed analyses that can help us ward off nasty Requests for Evidence (RFE) from the USCIS upon the filing of H-1B petitions.

The case involved an H-1B visa petition filed by a software solutions provider to employ a foreign national in the position of Senior Associate, Solution Architect. The petitioner based its beneficiary-qualification claim upon a combination of the beneficiary’s foreign coursework (a three-year Bachelor of Commerce degree) and the beneficiary’s work experience and training. The USCIS Director denied the H-1B petition and the AAO subsequently dismissed an appeal of the denial, both on the grounds that the petitioner failed to demonstrate that the beneficiary was qualified to perform the duties of the specialty occupation-caliber Software Developer position.In its decision to dismiss the appeal and deny the petition, the AAO cited language at 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(C)(4) and at section 214(i)(2)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Section 214(i)(2) of the Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1184(i)(2), states that an alien applying for classification as an H-lB nonimmigrant worker must possess:

(A) full state licensure to practice in the occupation, if such licensure is required to practice in the occupation,

(B) completion of the degree described in paragraph (1)(B) for the occupation, or

(C) (i) experience in the specialty equivalent to the completion of such degree,and(ii) recognition of expertise in the specialty through progressively responsible positions relating to the specialty.

8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(C), Beneficiary qualifications, provides for beneficiary qualification by satisfying one of four criteria. They require that the evidence of record establish that, at the time of the petition’s filing, the beneficiary was a person either:

(1) Hold(ing] a United States baccalaureate or higher degree required by the specialty occupation from an accredited college or university;

(2) Hold(ing] a foreign degree determined to be equivalent to a United States baccalaureate or higher degree required by the specialty occupation from an accredited college or university;

(3) Hold[ing] an unrestricted state license, registration or certification which authorizes him or her to fully practice the specialty occupation and be immediately engaged in that specialty in the state of intended employment; or

(4) Hav[ing] [(A)] education, specialized training, and/or progressively responsible experience that is equivalent to completion of a United States baccalaureate or higher degree in the specialty occupation, and hav[ing] [(B)] recognition of expertise in the specialty through progressively responsible positions directly related to the specialty.

The AAO pointed out that the clear, unambiguous language at both 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(C)(4) and at section 214(i)(2)(C) of the Act, stipulates that for classification as an H-1B nonimmigrant worker not qualifying by virtue of a license or qualifying degree, a beneficiary must possess TWO requirements – the experience in the specialty equivalent to the completion of such degree; AND recognition of expertise in the specialty through progressively responsible positions relating to the specialty.The petitioner submitted three sets of credentials evaluation documents, each an evaluation of a combination of the beneficiary’s foreign education and his work experience and training. Regarding the documentation of the beneficiary’s work experience, the evaluations relied heavily upon an experience letter which indicated that the beneficiary had been employed full-time “from June 2008 through the present” and that he “currently serves in the position of Sr. Associate, Solution Architect.” The letter provided a list of the beneficiary’s current job duties. The AAO found the experience letter deficient in that it did not establish any progression in the beneficiary’s duties and responsibilities or any progression through increasingly responsible positions that would meet the requirement, at 8 C.F.R. §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(C)(4), to show recognition of expertise in the specialty through progressively responsible positions directly related to the specialty in question. In other words, the AAO found that the experience letter did not indicate the position in which the beneficiary had initially been hired and whether the beneficiary still held that same position or whether the beneficiary’s current position represented a promotion or a series of promotions. The AAO found that the letter identified only the beneficiary’s current job duties in “relatively abstract terms of generalized functions” and did not state how long the beneficiary was performing in that current job. Because the letter failed to recount the beneficiary’s prior positions with the employer and the duties and responsibilities of those prior positions, it therefore did not establish that the beneficiary had achieved progressively responsible positions to indicate recognition of expertise in the pertinent specialty, as the provisions at 8 C.F.R. §214.2(h)( 4)(iii)(C)( 4) include as an essential element for establishing a beneficiary’s qualifications through a combination of education, training, and/or experience. The AAO held that the letter provided an insufficient basis for the evaluators to make any conclusions about the nature and level of college-course-equivalent knowledge that the beneficiary gained throughout his employment.

The AAO also took issue with what it described as a “misinterpretation and misapplication of the so-called “three-for-one” rule” which evaluators use to recognize any three years of work experience in a relevant specialized field as equivalent to attainment of one year of college credit in that specialty. The AAO stated that only one segment of the H-lB beneficiary-qualification regulations provides for the application of the three-for-one ratio, and that is the provision at 8 C.F.R. §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(D)(5), which reserves the application exclusively for USCIS agency-determinations and moreover, that portion of the regulations requires substantially more than simply equating any three years of work experience in a specific field to attainment of a year’s worth of college credit in that field or specialty. The AAO pointed out that evaluators seem to have adopted as their standard of measure only the numerical portion of the ratio segment of the regulation at 8 C.F.R. §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(D)(5), that is, “three years of specialized training and/or work experience must be demonstrated for each year of college-level training the alien lacks” and neglected to recognize the rest of the test which limits application of the “three-for-one” rule to only when USCIS finds that the evidence about the “the alien’s training and/or work experience” has (1) “clearly demonstrated” that it included the theoretical and practical application of specialized knowledge required by the specialty occupation; (2) “clearly demonstrated” that it was gained while working with peers, supervisors, or subordinates who have a degree or its equivalent in the specialty occupation; AND (3) “clearly demonstrated” that the alien has recognition of expertise in the specialty evidenced by at least one type of documentation such as:

(i) Recognition of expertise in the specialty occupation by at least two recognized authorities in the same specialty occupation;

(ii) Membership in a recognized foreign or United States association or society in the specialty occupation;

(iii) Published material by or about the alien in professional publications, trade journals, books, or major newspapers;

(iv) Licensure or registration to practice the specialty occupation in a foreign country; or

(v) Achievements which a recognized authority has determined to be significant contributions to the field of the specialty occupation.

Finding that the beneficiary’s experience letter failed to meet these three criteria, the AAO held that such evidence did not qualify for recognition of any years of college-level credit.

The decision also points out that under 8 C.F.R. §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(D)(3), only a “reliable credentials evaluation service that specializes in evaluating foreign education credentials” can evaluate a foreign national’s education. In the instant case, the AAO therefore dismissed two evaluations prepared by individuals and not by credentials evaluation services as having no probative weight.

The AAO also found fault with one evaluation of the beneficiary’s experience/training since the proof of the evaluator’s own credentials qualifying him to provide the evaluation included an endorsement letter from the Chairman of the Department of Computer Science at the education institution where the evaluator was employed, dated four years prior to the evaluation and a letter from the Registrar which stated that the evaluator had the authority to “recommend college-level credit for training and experience” and did not state that he had the power to “grant” college-level credit or go into any detail as the specific extent of his authority in this regard. The letter from the Registrar was also dated a year prior to the evaluation.

The AAO decision also touched on the fact that two evaluations mentioned that the beneficiary had completed “professional development programs in a variety of computer technology and accounting-related subject[s]” and provided no concrete explanatory information about the substantive nature of those programs and what their completion may have contributed in terms of equivalent U.S. college-level coursework.

With regard to any use of a foreign national’s resume as evidence of his work experience, the AAO decision pointed out that  a resume represents a claim by the beneficiary, rather than evidence to support that claim.

This is one non-precedent decision and the AAO seems to be taking a very hard line in denying a case where the beneficiary provided evidence of his work experience. Immigration practitioners who file H-1B petitions may feel that USCIS has not been taking such an extreme stance in previous petitions. It is up to each practitioner to discuss the issue with the prospective H-1B employer and decide on whether to submit a wealth of documentation with the initial H-1B petition or take the chance that the USCIS could issue an RFE. So what can we take away from this AAO decision?

    • Most importantly, the “three-for-one” rule cannot be taken for granted. It is important that the foreign national obtain extremely detailed experience letters from former employers, which describe each position that the foreign national has held such that the progressively responsible nature of the positions is evident and indicates the foreign national’s level of expertise in the specialty. The description of the foreign national’s duties and responsibilities should make it clear that his work included the theoretical and practical application of specialized knowledge required by the specialty occupation. The letters should also mention the foreign national’s peers, supervisors and subordinates who have degrees in the specialty occupation. The H-1B petitioner must also demonstrate that the foreign national has recognition of expertise in the specialty evidenced by at least one type of a list of five types of documentation described above. This can be accomplished by submitting two expert opinion letters from two college professors along with contemporaneous evidence of their ability to grant college-level credit.
    • Only a foreign credentials evaluation service may evaluate a foreign national’s education. Accordingly, if the foreign national has a combination of education and work experience, the submission to the USCIS cannot contain only expert opinions from professors but must also include an evaluation from a foreign credentials evaluation service.
    • Any evidence of the foreign national’s training must be accompanied by transcripts and a discussion about the nature of the program and what each program is worth in equivalent U.S. college level coursework. Again, if relying on a college professor to do an equivalency, the evaluation must be corroborated with evidence from the college authorities that the professor has the authority to grant credits and must provide further details under what circumstances this professor is authorized to grant those credits.
    • The foreign national’s resume should never be used as documentation of his experience.

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.

Work Authorization for Some H-4 Spouses Liberates Them From the Tyranny of Priority Dates

By Gary Endelman and Cyrus D. Mehta

All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Victor Hugo

Sometimes it takes a while for a sound idea to gain acceptance. Granting employment authorization to H-4 spouses of H-1B visa holders is a good example. It is in line with the policies of other countries, and if the United States wishes to attract the brightest and the best, such an individual may be dissuaded from coming to the United States if the spouse is not allowed to work.  This is especially true if the H-1B workers have to wait for several years before they and their families can apply for permanent residency.

Almost 4 years ago, then USCIS General Counsel Roxanna Bacon, Service Center Operations Head Donald Neufeld and Field Operations Chief Debra Rogers recommended that H-4 spouses  be granted employment authorization to USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, but only for those “H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B principals where the principals are also applicants for lawful permanent residence under AC 21.” Memorandum, Administrative Alternatives to Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The memo was leaked by those who wanted to defeat any administrative initiatives and they did so. There matters stood until January 31, 2012 when the Department of Homeland Security brought this idea back to life.

On May 6, 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)   announced that it would allow certain H-4 spouses to obtain employment authorization. The proposed rule provides that an H-4 spouse may apply for employment authorization if  the principal H-1B spouse is the beneficiary of an approved I-140 immigrant petition; or, if the H-1B spouse  been granted an extension of beyond the 6-year limitation pursuant to section 106(a) of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 (AC21). Under section 106(a) of AC 21, the filing of a labor certification or employment-based immigrant visa petitions 365 days prior to the sixth year allows the H-1B worker to apply for an additional year be yond the sixth year.

In Tyranny of Priority Dates and subsequent articles, we pointed out the long delays befalling skilled immigrants due to the backlogs in the priority dates, and proposed remedial measures, including the ability of an H-4 spouse to work. Our prior analysis of H-4 spousal employment and earlier indications that the USCIS recognized the problem and intended to do something about it provide a helpful context against which the importance of this latest development can be measured. .

The proposed rule to grant work authorization to H-4 spouses is much welcomed recognition of this problem. It acknowledges the contributions of foreign born immigrants, especially in the tech industry, and cites the findings of Vivek Wadhwa that in 25% of tech companies founded between 1995-2005, the chief executive or lead technologist was foreign born.  Indeed, the preamble to the proposed rule acknowledges that certain beneficiaries of I-140 petitions under the India EB-3 preference may have to wait over 10 years to obtain permanent residence. In the meantime, the H-4 spouse cannot seek employment, and is also prohibited from other work related activities such as engaging in self-employment through a home based business. While only Congress could create new visa categories, we argued that the Executive under section 103(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act was charged with the administration and enforcement of the INA. Also, the Executive had authority to grant work authorization to any aliens under INA section 274A(h)(3). Under these provisions, we had proposed that the Executive could provide relief for beneficiaries, including spouses, of approved I-130 and I-140 petitions through the grant of employment authorization who were caught in the crushing backlogs. After all, these people were in the pipeline for the green card, but for the backlogs in the priority dates.  The H-1B visa also allows for “dual intent,” as it permits one to apply for permanent residency even though it is technically a nonimmigrant visa.

The proposed rule now recognizes, as we did in The Tyranny of Priority Dates, the ability of the Executive to pass ameliorative measures in the face of crushing delays for those in the green card queue.  While Congress has still not been able to pass a reform of the broken immigration system, the proposed rule  further acknowledges that the Executive has the legal authority to authorize spousal employment pursuant to INA sections 103(1) and 274A (h)(3) Resting on this foundation, the proposed rule further relies on INA sections 214(a)(1), which authorizes the Executive to prescribe regulations setting forth terms and conditions with respect to the admission of nonimmigrants into the United States.  Recognizing that H-1B workers and their spouses would be green card holders but for the backlogs in the priority dates, Commerce Secretary appropriately stated, “These individuals are American families in waiting.”

The granting of work authorization to H-4 spouses if the principal spouse has applied for an AC 21 extension also resolves the conundrum when both spouses are on H-1B visas and are reaching the sixth year on their H-1B visas. Under this situation, the spouse who was not the subject of a labor certification was generally forced to switch to H-4 status, and was then prohibited from continuing employment.  In Two H-1B Spouses: One Labor or Certification we advocated how both spouses could take advantage of the labor certification filed on behalf of one of the spouses in order to get a seventh year extension. While there is a sound basis to argue that AC 21 would benefit the spouse who was relying on the labor certification filed on behalf of the labor certification, since this is the basis for their adjustment of status,  the USCIS did not always interpret AC 21 section 106(a) broadly to benefit both spouses. Now, thankfully, this uncertainty will no longer exist. The spouse who is not the subject of the labor certification can switch to H-4 status and can still apply for work authorization. At the same time, we still advocate that a spouse on an H-1B visa be able to rely on the other spouse’s labor certification or I-140 to seek an H-1B extension beyond the sixth year limitation. There will be occasions when it is more expeditious for the spouse to file an H-1B extension and continue working, rather than file for a change of status to H-4 and then apply for an employment authorization document before re-starting work again. This is an excellent illustration of how doctrinal clarity by the USCIS can promote robust operational flexibility by aliens and their advocates.

The proposed rule also resolves another uncertainty. H-4 spouses who were able to file an I-485 adjustment of status application for permanent residency could always apply for work authorization by virtue of filing the I-485 pursuant to 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(9). What was not clear is whether such H-4 spouses forfeited their right to remain in H-4 status if they engaged in work pursuant to an employment authorization under 8 CFR 274a.12(c)(9) while their I-485 applications remained pending. The proposed rule in footnote 13 appears to suggest that they did not violate their status. The rule will create  8 CFR 274a.12(c)(26) as a basis for H-4 spouses to apply for work authorization, and suggests that H-4 spouses who previously availed of work authorization under 274a.12(c)(9) can also avail of work authorization under 274a.12(c)(26). If the spouse lost H-4 status by engaging in employment pursuant to 274a.12(c)(9), it would not be possible for the H-4 spouse to now take advantage of new 274a.12(c)(26).  As with the H-1B  itself, the proposed H-4 rule recognizes and diffuses the tension between the constraints of nonimmigrant visa categories, such as the H-1B which is employer-specific or the H-4 that  hitherto was not allowed to sustain employment, and the adjustment of status provision in INA Section 245 that grants open market employment.

Many advocates feel that the rule did not go far enough and could have granted work authorization for all H-4 spouses without condition.  After all, the L-1 and E visas, allow dependent spouses to apply for  work authorization immediately upon being admitted under those statuses. On the other hand, the authorization to grant spouses of L and E nonimmigrants work authorization stems from Congress, although J-2 spouses who do not support the principal J-1 exchange visitor work solely through regulation Congress has not specifically authorized work authorization for H-4 spouses, although there is authority in the INS, as discussed, which still provides such authority to the DHS. While this is fair criticism, the Administration also faces withering opposition from anti-immigration advocates, including the likes of Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), who question whether there is any authority at all to grant work authorization. Hence, the middle ground to grant work authorization benefits to H-4 spouses who are already on the pathway to permanent residence but are caught up in the backlogs. The proposed rule also acknowledges that this ameliorative measure is consistent with AC 21, which was enacted so that the principal H-1B spouses could continue to remain in the United States beyond the sixth year, and thus avoid disruption to US employers. Limiting work authorization to H-4 spouses who are on the pathway to green cards can also more easily insulate such a rule from challenges in federal court.

Still, even under this logic, it would be preferable if H-4 spouses are able to apply for work authorization as soon as a labor certification is filed on behalf of the principal spouse. There is no need to pre-condition the grant of employment authorization upon the approval of the I-140 petition, given the delays in the PERM labor certification process, which can take two years if the application is subject to an audit or to supervised recruitment. The rule also recognizes that an H-4 can apply for employment when a labor certification is filed, but only when it is used to obtain an H-1B extension beyond the six years under AC 21. It is illogical to only allow the H-4 to apply for a work permit when the principal spouse relies on the labor certification to seek an extension beyond six years, and not otherwise. Furthermore, while the majority of H-1B visa holders may be sponsored by employers through I-140 petitions, some H-4 spouses may also be sponsored by prospective employers in their own right. H-4 spouses who are directly sponsored by employers under an I-140 petition should also be allowed to apply for employment authorization. And why limit this to only I-140s? Some H-1Bs or H-4s are also sponsored by qualifying family members through an I-130 petition. They too are Americans in waiting.

Finally, children in H-4 status have been left out and do not have the ability to apply for work authorization. Children of L-1 and E-1 visa holders are also not allowed to work, although children of J-1 visa holders can work. On the other hand, H-4 children can obtain work authorization benefits if they switch to F-1 student visa status.

We continue to call upon Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform, including the expansion of H-1B visa numbers.  Any administrative initiative, however meaningful or positive, and this one is both, is, by its very nature, both tentative and subject to reversal. Only an INA worthy of the many difficult but exciting challenges that America must confront and master in the 21st century can provide the nation with the vision that it needs and deserves. Yet, until that happy day comes, the USCIS can and must do justice with the law that we all have. That is what has finally happened with H-4 spousal employment. Not a full and complete step certainly, but a stride forward towards a better day.

Something else needs to be said before we go. What we in the United States are dealing with is a global battle for talent. More than any other single immigration issue, the H-1B visa debate highlights the growing and inexorable importance of a skilled entrepreneurial class with superb expertise and a commitment not to company or country, but to their own careers and the technologies on which they are based. They have true international mobility and, like superstar professional athletes, will go to those places where they are paid most handsomely and given a full and rich opportunity to create. We are no longer the only game in town. The debate over the H-1B is, at its core, an argument over whether the United States will continue to embrace this culture, thus reinforcing its competitive dominance in it, or turn away and shrink from the competition and the benefits that await. No decision on H quotas can or should be made separate and apart from an answer to a far more fundamental question: How can we, as a nation, attract and retain that on which our prosperity most directly depends, namely a productive, diverse, stable and highly educated work force irrespective of nationality and do so without sacrificing the dreams and aspirations of our own people whose protection is the first duty and only sure justification for the continuance of that democracy on which all else rests? This is the very heart of the H-1B maze.

An immigration system that restricts the importation of human capital hurts American competitiveness every bit as much as high tariffs or artificial subsidies. In each case, the controlled but predictable flow of capital across national boundaries is the lubricant of economic activity. Preserving the H-1B as an instrument of job creation for Americans while enhancing the ability of foreign professionals to make our cause their own is an essential and irresistible component of comprehensive immigration reform. Allowing some, though not all, H-4 spouses to work is a key step in this direction. The DHS estimates that 100,600 H-4 spouses will apply for work authorization in the first year and 35,900 will initially apply in subsequent years. For those concerned about the impact on the US labor market, these H-4 spouses would in any event be able to work once the principal H-1B spouse applied for adjustment of status. They will also be able to contribute to the US economy, and the incentive provided to them will also encourage the H-1B spouse to stay on in the United States. We have every good hope that is will lead to ever more confident strides in the days to come. It is in the very nature of reform in the liberal tradition for progress to be incremental.  If the Chinese maxim that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” retains its power to teach,  as we believe it surely does, we who legitimately want much more than the H-4 spousal regulation offers should not, even for a single moment, divert our eyes from the very real progress that has now been taken.

(Guest writer Gary Endelman is the Senior Counsel of FosterQuan)