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Dealing With The Dreaded RFE – Reflections Of An Immigration Lawyer

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

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

The following extract from the Reuters article is worth reproducing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 You can continue to read the entire article here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A).

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

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

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

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

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

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

H-1B Entry Level Wage Blues

Those who filed under the FY 2018 H-1B visa lottery and were selected must have been pleased. As premium processing was eliminated, the approvals have just started coming in this summer. Cases that are not readily approved receive Requests for Evidence (RFE). Many of the RFEs object to the H-1B worker being paid an entry level wage.

The RFE attempts to trap the employer. It challenges whether the Labor Condition Application, if it indicates a Level 1 wage, appropriately supports the H-1B petition. According to the DOL’s prevailing wage policy guidance,  a Level 1 (entry) wage is assigned to positions that require a basic understanding of the occupation, and such an employee performs routine tasks that require limited, if any, exercise of judgment. Such an employee also works under close supervision and receive specific instructions on required tasks and results expected.

The RFE – which meticulously parrots the Level 1 duties from the DOL’s wage guidance – then asserts that the position described in the H-1B petition appears to be more complex than a position that is assigned a Level 1 wage. Therefore, the RFE asserts that the employer has not sufficiently established that the H-1B is supported by a certified LCA that corresponds to the petition.

Employers who receive such an RFE should not panic. Just because the position is assigned an entry level wage does not necessarily mean that the position cannot qualify as an H-1B specialty occupation. Moreover, even an occupation assigned with an entry level wage can be complex and thus require a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field. The DOL’s worksheet within its wage guidance indicates that if the occupation requires a bachelor’s degree and up to two years of experience, it will be assigned a Level 1 wage to a corresponding Job Zone 4 occupation. In the event that the job requires skills, would that bump up the wage to Level 2?  Unless the job requires skills that are not encompassed in the O*NET tasks, work activities, knowledge, and Job Zone examples for the selected occupation, the position can still remain in Level 1, according to the DOL’s wage guidance.

Hence, the corresponding tasks of an occupation requiring a bachelor’s degree and up to two years of experience can still be complex, even if the wage remains at Level 1 and the position requires supervision. For example, it would be difficult for the USCIS to argue that an entry level doctor, lawyer or architect cannot qualify for H-1B visa classification. These occupations need underlying degrees in the specialty as a minimum for entry into the profession. Even if the lawyer is closely supervised, he or she still needs to perform complex tasks relating to the underlying Juris Doctor degree. The same logic ought to apply to other occupations that are readily classifiable under the H-1B visa such as engineers or computer systems analysts. The job duties at any wage level correspond to the knowledge that is acquired through a specialized degree such as a degree in engineering or computer science.

Indeed, the wage level assigned to the occupation ought not determine whether it is eligible for H-1B visa classification or not. If the position does not require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree for entry into the occupation, such as a plumber or welder, then even a Level 4 wage assignment would not be able to salvage this occupation for purposes of H-1B classification.

In  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 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 questioned 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.  While this policy memorandum only applied to entry level computer programmers, practitioners are now seeing that any occupation that is assigned a Level 1 wage, even if it is not related to computer programmer, gets an RFE. It may be worth noting that even an entry level computer occupation should be eligible for H-1B classification if it can be demonstrated that the skills necessary to perform the duties require the minimum of a bachelor’s degree.

President Trump’s Executive Order on Buy American Hire American may also be responsible for this trend, which provides in relevant part:

In order to promote the proper functioning of the H-1B visa program, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall, as soon as practicable, suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries

Even if the administration has not been able to promulgate new regulations to achieve its stated goals under the executive order, these RFEs are indirectly implementing President Trump’s “Buy American Hire American” policy by thwarting H-1B petitions filed for entry level positions. While H-1B petitions with Level 1 wages have run into trouble prior to the Trump administration, RFEs are now being issued more frequently whenever a Level 1 wage has been noticed. Immigration attorneys must fight back on behalf of their clients. Otherwise, the government could potentially exclude entry-level professionals from using the H-1B visa, some of whom have recently graduated from US universities. These entry-level professionals, while full of skill and talent, are not typically afforded higher wages at the beginning of their careers. If the H-1B program were to look unfavorably upon wage-earners commanding Level 1 wages in the DOL wage classification system, then we would be systematically excluding highly skilled, young workers that have the potential to positively impact the US economy and various professional sectors. Paying such an entry wage is not per se unlawful if the individual is being hired for a position with less than 2 years of experience and which requires supervision. Another argument that can be made is that if an employer is forced to pay a legitimate entry level worker on an H-1B visa at a wage level higher than the entry level wage, we may end up in a situation where a foreign national is making more than his or her American counterpart. Under the H-1B law, the employer must pay the higher of the prevailing or the actual wage. See INA 212(n)(1)(A)(i). If an employer is forced to pay a higher wage to an H-1B worker at the entry level, then the employer may have to adjust the wage for all similarly situated workers. This may not necessarily be a bad thing if all wages rise, but if the rise in wages is as a result of reading out H-1B visas from the INA for entry level workers in acknowledged professions, it could also have the effect of artificially distorting wages that could ultimately hurt competitiveness. If the wage paid is well above the minimum wage  in Level 1, but slightly under Level 2, and at times there is at least a $20,000 or $30,000 difference between Level 1 and Level 2, then that too can be used to argue that the higher wage being paid is commensurate to the more complex duties in the H-1B petition, despite the RFE asserting that the duties are basic, even if this higher wage is still within Level 1.

There is nothing in the INA or in the implementing regulations that suggest that a position that commands an entry level wage is ineligible for H-1B visa classification. All that is required is for the petitioning employer to demonstrate that the proffered position requires the “theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge” and “attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree in the specific specialty (or its equivalent) as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States.”  INA §214(i)(l).  The regulations further define “specialty occupation” as one that “requires the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher in a specific specialty.”  8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(ii).  The regulations then provide four regulatory criteria, and the petitioner must satisfy at least one, that would qualify the position as a specialty occupation:

  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.  See 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A).

All of the criteria in 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A) suggest that the bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for entry into the occupation or for purposes of performing the duties of the position. However, if one is relying on prong 4 to establish H-1B eligibility because it is unusually complex or specialized, the AAO in an unpublished decision has noted that this would create an issue of credibility if the LCA only identifies a Level 1 wage. Therefore, practitioners should be prepared to either assert that the duties can be specialized and complex even if a Level 1 wage is being paid, or alternatively, argue under prongs 1, the first part of prong 2 or prong 3. In a different decision, the AAO recognized that a Level 1 wage in certain occupations, such as doctors or lawyers, would not preclude a finding that they qualified as specialty occupations. Of course, if the position required more than 2 years of experience, then it will be harder for the employer to argue, if not impossible, that an entry level wage was justified. On the other hand, if the beneficiary was demonstrating possession of a degree through work experience, it should be carefully explained that this experience is not part of the job requirement, but is being used by the beneficiary to obtain the equivalent of a specialized degree through training or work experience.

Lawyers must use every argument in their legal arsenal to overcome RFEs intending to deny H-1B petitions that contain a Level 1 wage, and if there is a denial, to seek either administrative or judicial review. The law did not intend to impose a Catch-22 on employers who legitimately hire H-1B workers for entry level positions. If the employer argues that the duties are routine and comport to the Level 1 wage definition then the USCIS will play “gotcha” by asserting that the occupation does not qualify for H-1B classification. If, on the other hand, the employer argues that the duties are complex and specialized, then the USCIS will likely continue to delight in playing “gotcha” by asserting that the LCA does not correspond to the H-1B petition. There is a way to avoid this trap.  An employer can demonstrate that routine entry level duties that still need to rely on skills acquired from a specialized bachelor’s degree program would qualify the occupation for H-1B classification. Alternatively, an employer may also be able to demonstrate that certain duties can be complex and specialized in occupations even at an entry level.  The employer must choose the best argument based on the specific occupation being challenged and facts of the case.

There was a time when obtaining an H-1B visa was considered routine and easy. Not so any longer.

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.