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F-1 Cap Gap Students In Limbo From October 1, 2018 Onward If Their H-1B Cases Have Not Been Approved

It is October 1, 2018 and this morning, in what is an extremely unfortunate yet totally preventable situation, businesses across the U.S. were forced to temporarily terminate the employment of F-1 students who were previously employed pursuant to their cap-gap extension period.

Briefly, the cap-gap extension regulation temporarily extends the OPT (Optional Practical Training) period for F-1 students with pending H-1B petitions and requests for change of status. The cap-gap period starts when an F-1 student’s status and work authorization expire, and they are extended through September 30th, the end of fiscal year. The ongoing suspension of USCIS’ premium processing service, previously discussed in one of our earlier blogs, has critically impacted H-1B cap subject petitions for F-1 students in the cap-gap extension period. USCIS has found a way to basically suffocate the H-1B visa program.

USCIS extended the suspension of premium processing for fiscal year 2019 cap-subject H-1B petitions which was originally slated to last until September 10, 2018, through to an estimated date of February, 19, 2019. USCIS’ premium processing service has always been a heavily utilized option for U.S. businesses providing them with a significantly faster adjudication timeline of a few weeks instead of the regular processing time of 6-9 months! The premium processing option also allowed businesses to ensure that their professional staff would be available to meet critical project timelines and thus allowed them to plan accordingly. Employers had to offer the jobs prior to April 1, and then file H-1B petitions on behalf of the foreign national within the first five days of April 2018 to be considered in the H-1B visa lottery.  Under the H-1B regulations, an H-1B petition may not be filed or approved earlier than six months before the date of actual need for the beneficiary’s services or training. Therefore, U.S. employers are unable to file an H-1B petition on behalf of a prospective employee more than six months from the intended start date but the processing of that H-1B petition may take well beyond six months.  Without premium processing, many employers are left unable to hire the H-1B worker on October 1, 2018 even though the job offer was made more than six months ago and the petition is potentially approvable. In addition, premium processing was also a great tool for the F-1 student. Imagine having a petition filed on your behalf in the first week of April and for the next 6-9 months, or likely longer, being unable to make any concrete plans for your future, including not knowing whether you would be allowed to remain in the US or have to immediately pack your bags and leave.

USCIS stated that the suspension of premium processing is necessary in order to allow the agency to “[b]e responsive to petitions with time-sensitive start dates” but it is not clear why F-1 students who are in a cap-gap extension period failed to qualify as having time-sensitive start dates. U.S. employers forced to suspend the employment of these F-1 students have no recourse. USCIS has indicated that these petitioners may submit a request for expedited processing but the expedite process is grossly unreliable and it is not clear how these requests are being processed. It is by no means a viable alternative to premium processing.

As of October 1, F-1 students previously employed pursuant to a cap-gap extension are no longer authorized to work and will start accruing unlawful presence in the U.S. if they continue to work under the new unlawful presence policy applicable to students. However, the F-1 student generally may remain in the United States while the change of status petition is pending without accruing unlawful presence, provided they do not work without authorization. This student also cannot travel during the limbo period, unless he or she is prepared to return to the US after the H-1B petition is approved on a new H-1B visa. But one should not assume that the H-1B petition will get approved in a climate where the Trump administration is routinely challenging H-1B petitions for occupations that were previously easily approved.  Although the USCIS has at this time delayed its removal policy with respect to employment-based petitions that ultimately get denied, the delay will not be indefinite and these F-1 cap students will find themselves not just  accruing unlawful presence, but will also find themselves facing removal proceedings if the H-1B petition and the request for change of status is denied.

Of course, if an F-1 student with a pending change of status H-1B petition has work authorization (such as a valid Employment Authorization Document (EAD)) that extends past September 30th they may continue to work as authorized.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has called on USCIS to immediately lift the premium processing suspension on FY 2019 H-1B cap-subject petitions for beneficiaries who are in a cap-gap extension period, or alternatively, to publish a notice in the Federal Register extending the cap-gap work authorization period to at least 90 days beyond September 30, 2018, or until all FY 2019 H-1B cap cases can be adjudicated. To date USCIS has issued no response to this request.

In choosing to so suffocate the H-1B visa program, USCIS is restricting legal immigration and fulfilling the Trump administration’s objective under its “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order No. 13788. But a negative chain reaction easily ensues with an immigration policy influenced by BAHA:  U.S. businesses cannot remain competitive if they are unable to hire the best students graduating from US universities, including foreign students in F-1 status.  U.S. universities will get hurt if they cannot attract the best students in the world who also pay full tuition fees. The U.S. loses out as a nation if it cannot compete with other countries for the best and brightest. The only way out of this downward spiral is for this administration to come to its senses and provide much needed oxygen to the H-1B program it has cruelly strangulated by restoring premium processing and adjudicating bona fide H-1B petitions more sensibly so that they get approved rather than denied.

 

 

 

 

Suspension of Premium Processing: Another Attack On the H-1B Program

The Trump administration has restricted the H-1B program by making it harder for employers to obtain an approval. It has done this without changing the law through Congress or amending any rule.  Routine H-1B visa petitions that were previously approvable are now subject to difficult to overcome Requests for Evidence. Even after valiantly submitting evidence to overcome an RFE, the H-B petition is more susceptible to being denied.  The USCIS has also announced that it will initiate removal proceedings in case an extension request is denied and the underlying H-1B status previously expired, further harassing H-1B workers who have remained lawfully in the United States until the point their H-1B request is denied under needless heightened scrutiny.  It is thus no surprise that businesses are loudly complaining on Labor Day that they are hurting because they are struggling to fill the jobs they need with foreign workers.

To rub further salt in the wound, USICS announced on August 28, 2018, that it was  extending the previously announced temporary suspension of premium processing for cap-subject H-1B petitions and, beginning Sept. 11, 2018, will be expanding this temporary suspension to include certain additional H-1B petitions. These suspensions are expected to last until Feb. 19, 2019. Premium processing service provides expedited processing for a specific list of employment-based immigrant and nonimmigrant petitions upon paying an additional fee. This list has always included the H-1B petition.

The expanded temporary suspension applies to all H-1B petitions filed at the Vermont and California Service Centers (except for filings by certain cap exempt employers).

The previously announced suspension of premium processing for fiscal year 2019 cap-subject H-1B petitions was originally slated to last until Sept. 10, 2018, but that suspension is being extended through an estimated date of Feb. 19, 2019.

The USCIS has specifically indicated that the suspension does not apply to:

  1. Cap-exempt petitions that are filed exclusively at the California Service Center because the employer is cap exempt or because the beneficiary will be employed at a qualifying cap exempt institution, entity, or organization; or
  2. Those petitions filed exclusively at the Nebraska Service Center by an employer requesting a “Continuation of previously approved employment without change with the same employer” (Box b. on Part 2, Question 2, Page 2 of the current Form I-129) with a concurrent request to:
    1. Notify the office in Part 4 so each beneficiary can obtain a visa or be admitted. (Box on Part 2, Question 4, Page 2 of the current Form I-129); or
    2. Extend the stay of each beneficiary because the beneficiary now holds this status. (Box c. on Part 2, Question 4, Page 2 of the current Form I-129).

The reasoning behind the extension and expansion of the suspension of premium processing, according to the USCIS, is to help it to reduce overall H-1B processing times by allowing it to:

  • Process long-pending petitions, which we have been unable to process due to the high volume of incoming petitions and premium processing requests over the past few months;
  • Be responsive to petitions with time-sensitive start dates; and
  • Prioritize adjudication of H-1B extension of status cases that are nearing the 240-day mark.

This may be the official position of USCIS, but it is no coincidence that  continuing the suspension as well as expanding it nicely fits into the administration’s objective to further restrict the H-1B visa program pursuant to “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order No. 13788. BAHA has been deployed as a justification to restrict legal immigration for the purpose of protecting American workers. However, this rationale makes no sense in a full employment economy when businesses are hurting because they cannot hire foreign workers. Therefore, the only other possible rationale to restrict legal immigration is to advance white nationalism, which is what Trump promised and continues to promise to his base of supporters.

The extension of the previously suspended premium processing for H-1B cap cases means that employers who were expecting foreign nationals to start their jobs on October 1, 2018 may no longer be able to do so if the H-1B petition is not approved. This renders the H-1B visa program virtually useless. Employers had to offer the jobs prior to April 1, and then file H-1B petitions on behalf of the foreign national within the first five days of April 2018 to be considered in the H-1B visa lottery. Since USCIS received 190,098 H-1B cases earlier this year, which exceeded the maximum 85,000 H-1B visas that can be issued, more applications got rejected rather than accepted under the H-1B lottery this year. Those H-1B petitions that got selected are susceptible to receiving an RFE and a possible denial under the new heightened scrutiny policy.  Moreover,  there are many cases that have not been adjudicated since they were filed in early April 2018, and without premium processing, employers will likely not be able to hire the H-1B worker on October 1, 2018 even though the job offer was made more than six months ago and the petition is potentially approvable. Students who are working for the employer under F-1 Cap Gap Optional Practical Training will have to stop on October 1, 2018 unless the change of status request from F-1 to H-1B is approved on or before that date.

The expansion of the suspension of premium processing means that those H-1B visa holders who are changing employers will not be able to get the assurance of an approval when they make the switch. Although an H-1B worker can port to a new job without waiting for the approval, so long as the employment starts after the new employer has filed the H-1B petition and request for extension of status, both employers and H-1B workers would like the security of an approval before they start their new jobs. The expansion of the suspension of premium processing will hinder mobility of H-1B workers. This in turn will hinder competitiveness and will also inhibit skilled H-1B workers from improving career prospects and getting better compensation, resulting in an adverse impact on US competitiveness in the long run. The suspension of premium processing further feeds into the USCIS’s new removal policy. If an H-1B worker takes a chance to port to a new employer, and if that petition, along with the extension of status request, is subsequently denied after several months of delay due to lack of premium processing, this person could be at risk of receiving a Notice to Appear and will be placed in removal proceedings.

Furthermore, an employer is required to request an amendment of the H-1B petition if the worker is being sent to a new worksite that was not contemplated in the original H-1B petition. The suspension of premium processing for amending an H-1B petition also creates further uncertainty as to the fate of the amendment request that may be challenged and denied under the heightened scrutiny being given to such petitions under the Trump administration.

The only saving grace is that premium processing has not been suspended for extension requests with the same employer. Still, caution is advised since premium processing is only allowed if  box 2.b in Part 2 relating to “Continuation of previously approved employment without change with the same employer ” is checked. If box 2.c is checked – “Change in previously approved employment” – then premium processing will not be allowed. The instructions to Form I-129 state that box 2.c should be checked when there is a non-material change in the employment such as a change in job title but without a material change in duties. There are bound to be non-material changes to the job duties, including salary increases, at the time of filing any H-1B extension request.  Till now, USCIS has not paid close attention to whether box 2.b or 2.c is checked, since a non-material change in the job could still be considered  a “[c]ontinuation of previously approved employment.” Otherwise, if the change was material, then an amendment must have been filed prior to the expiration of the H-1B validity period.  However, as a commentator to this blog has astutely suggested,  one can now expect the Nebraska Service Center to pay closer attention to these meaningless distinctions in order to play “gotcha” and deny premium processing if 2.b rather than 2.c was checked. It is hoped that the NSC will consider non-material changes as a continuation of previously approved employment, but one should not bank on reason these days when the mindset of the Trump administration is to restrict immigration!    Cap exempt employers can also avail of premium processing, but they are few in comparison to the overall population of employers who file H-1B petitions. Premium processing for other visa categories has not been suspended. While premium processing is suspended, petitioners may submit a request to expedite an H-1B petition if they meet the criteria on the Expedite Criteria webpage. However, USCIS very grudgingly accepts expedited requests.

The USCIS has been suspending premium processing with greater frequency in recent times. It did so last on April 3, 2017 and resumed it again on September 18, 2017. USCIS again suspended premium processing for H-1B cap cases on April 2, 2018, and has now extended the suspension to February 11,  2019, in addition to expanding the suspension to other types of H-1B filings. Premium processing generates fees, which can result in more transformation through efficiency, and so by suspending premium processing USCIS is killing the goose that lays the golden egg. The USCIS wants to process other cases more quickly, but it would make more sense to accept premium processing so that it can add more staff to process all cases as efficiently as possible. Ironically, USICS has also announced an increase in the premium processing fee from $1225 to $1410. The justification for this increase is that it “represents the percentage change in inflation since the fee was last increased in 2010 based on the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers.” Thus, this increase is to keep up with inflation rather than generate revenues, and USCIS will still lose revenues as a result of the suspension of premium processing for many types of H-1B filings.

If the USCIS excessively delays the adjudication of H-1B visa petitions due to lack of premium processing, one possible solution is to file mandamus actions to compel the USCIS to make a decision. If the administration is faced with thousands of such actions, it will realize that it is less costly to process cases quickly, and even restore premium processing completely, rather than get bogged down in a deluge of mandamus actions against it.

 

Analyzing the Definition of a Specialty Occupation Under INA 214(i) to Challenge H-1B Visa Denials

In recent denials of H-1B petitions, the USCIS has been taking the position that the occupation for which H-1B classification is sought must require a degree in the specific field.  This position runs contrary to the definition of a specialty occupation. An occupation that may require a degree is diverse fields may also qualify.  Denials resulting in the wholesale reading out of qualifying occupations will likely continue when H-1B cases selected under the FY 2019 cap are adjudicated. A careful analysis of the statutory definition of specialty occupation provides a good starting point to challenge such denials.

Under INA § 214(i)(1) a “specialty occupation” is  defined as an occupation that requires

–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

The regulation at 8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(ii) parrots INA § 214(i)(1) by defining “specialty occupation” as follows, except that the regulation requires a bachelor’s degree in “a” specific specialty while the statute requires a bachelor’s degree in “the” specific specialty, which may be a distinction without a meaningful difference:

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

At issue is whether the occupation, in order to qualify for an H-1B visa, must require a bachelor’s degree in the specific specialty. A lawyer would qualify as a specialty occupation as only a degree in law would allow entry into the occupation. But INA § 214(i)(1) reads more broadly. It also ought to encompass a marketing analyst, even though this occupation may require a bachelor’s degree in diverse fields such as marketing, business or psychology. Unfortunately, the USCIS does not always agree. Is the USCIS correctly interpreting INA §214(i)(1).

The answer lies with how the phrase in the parenthetical “or its equivalent” is interpreted in INA § 214(i)(1). In Tapis International v INS, 94 F. Supp. 2d 172, the court held that a “position may qualify as a specialty occupation if the employer requires a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. For the “equivalent” language to have any reasonable meaning, it must encompass …….various combinations of academic and experience based training. It defies logic to read the bachelor’s requirement of “specialty occupation” to include only those positions where a specific bachelor’s degree is offered.” The phrase “or its equivalent” in INA 214(i)(1) is distinct from what the H-1B beneficiary is required to possess to qualify for specialty occupation.  INA 214(i)(2) sets forth separate requirements, such as completion of a bachelor’s degree or experience in the specialty through progressively responsible positions relating to the specialty. Therefore, the phrase “or its equivalent” actually broadens the requirement for a bachelor’s degree is a specific specialty to encompass “not only skill, knowledge, work experience, or training ….. but also various combinations of academic and experience based training.” See Tapis, supra. Thus, if an occupation requires a generalized degree, but specialized experience or training, it should still qualify as a specialty occupation. The AAO often cites Royal Siam Corp v. Chertoff, 484 F.3d 139 (First Cir. 2007) for the proposition that a general purpose degree is not sufficient to meet the definition of a specialty occupation. In Royal Siam Corp, the First Circuit stated that a degree requirement in a specific specialty-one that relates directly to the duties and responsibilities of a particular position-is given more weight by the agency than a requirement for a generic degree. Thus, if the position carefully outlines the specialized degrees or experience that are essential to perform the duties of the position duties, it should be distinguished from the holding in Royal Siam Corp.

If USCIS does not consider this interpretation of “or equivalent”, it would be impossible to classify most occupations for H-1B classification. Under Residential Finance Corp. v. USCIS, 839 F. Supp.2d. 985(S.D. Ohio 2012), the court found that “[t]he knowledge and not the title of the degree is what is important. Diplomas rarely come bearing occupation specific majors. What is required is an occupation that requires highly specialized knowledge and a prospective employee who has obtained the credentialing indicating possession of that knowledge.” The AAO has accepted this finding and has added that when there are disparate fields listed as minimums into the field, the petitioner must establish “how each field is directly related to the duties and responsibilities of the particular position such that the required body of highly specialized knowledge is essentially an amalgamation of these different specialties.” Matter of N-L-, Inc. AAO August 3, 2016.

Accordingly, there is a clear basis to challenge a USCIS denial on grounds that the occupation does not always require a degree in the specific specialty or that the degree may be too generalized, especially where an employer has taken pains to connect the specialized duties with the degree requirement. Indeed, 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A) is further  consistent with INA § 214(i) as it provides several ways in which a petitioner can establish that the position can qualify as a specialty occupation.  Those criteria are:

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

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

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

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

8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A).  The petitioner is required only to show that the position meets one of the four criteria. Defensor v. Meissner, 201 F.3d 384 (5th Cir. 2000), which the USCIS also relies on when denying H-1B petitions,   held that the four criteria in 8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A) were only necessary conditions, but not necessary and sufficient conditions to establish that the occupation is a specialty occupation. In other words, an employer may under prong 3 require a bachelor’s degree for an occupation that ordinarily never requires a degree, but that may still not meet the statutory definition of a specialty occupation under INA § 214(i)(1). On the other hand, if the employer provides probative evidence of its need for a bachelor’s degree, and that its past hiring practices were also consistent with that need, as well as consistent with industry standards, the USCIS ought to accept the employer’s justification for a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field under the preponderance of evidence standard.

For a petition that has a proffered position of computer systems analyst, for example, USCIS has been selective in its reading of the Occupational Outlook Handbook in order to justify a denial on the ground that a bachelor’s degree in a computer science is not always a requirement. A denial often focuses on the following language in the OOH:

A bachelor’s degree in a computer or information science field is common, although not always a requirement. Some firms hire analysts with business or liberal arts degrees who have skills in information technology or computer programming.

(…)

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

Petitioners and their attorneys should closely review the OOH themselves rather than rely on the few sections USCIS provides in its denial. If attorneys do this, they will realize that USCIS chooses to leave out an important section of the educational requirements that “[m]ost computer systems analysts have a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field.” USCIS ignores this language in order to support its faulty determination that a bachelor’s degree in a specific specialty, or its equivalent, is not normally the minimum requirement for the position and that the degree requirement is not common to the industry under the first and second criteria of 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A). However, where the regulation uses the words “normally” and “common” it would be erroneous to determine that a proffered position is not a specialty occupation merely because not all employers require a bachelor’s degree. If most employers require a bachelor’s degree, this should be sufficient to meet the statutory definition of a specialty occupation.

Next Generation Tech., Inc. v. Johnson, No. 15 cv 5663 (DF), 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165531, at *30-31 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 29, 2017) emphasized that if “most” computer systems analysts have a bachelor’s degree in the appropriate field, as is provided in the OOH, then it follows that the degree is “normally” required for the position, and thus, the position qualifies as a specialty occupation.” In (Redacted Decision) 2012 WL 4713226 (AAO February 08, 2012), and  consistent with the Next Generation Tech reasoning, the AAO has explained in at least 2,415 unpublished decisions that “USCIS regularly approves H-1B petitions for qualified aliens who are to be employed as engineers, computer scientists, certified public accountants, college professors, and other such occupations.” For computer scientists, for example, the OOH provides that “[m]ost computer and information research scientists need a master’s degree in computer science or a related subject, such as computer engineering.” This illustrates that, provided the specialties are closely related, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or higher in more than one specialty satisfies the “degree in the specific specialty” requirement of INA § 214(i)(1)(8). In reversing the CSC’s denial of a petition, Residential Finance said that the “premise that the title of a field of study controls ignores the realities of the statutory language involved and the obvious intent behind them. The knowledge and not the title of the degree is what is important. Diplomas rarely come bearing occupation-specific majors.”

It is clear that both USCIS and the courts have repeatedly held that where most employers in an occupation require a bachelor’s degree in a narrow range of majors, or a related major, or its equivalent, it is a specialty occupation. In situations where the OOH is unhelpful, such as with respect to a Food Service Manager, where the OOH makes clear that a bachelor’s degree is not always required to enter the field, the employer must take pains to even further describe the specialized and complex duties of the position within the context of the employer, and potentially rely on the fourth prong of 8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(iii) for establishing the specialty occupation. The fourth prong provides that “the nature of 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)(4); Fred 26 Importers, Inc. v. DHS, 445 F. Supp.2d 1174 (C.D. Cal. 2006)(although agreeing that the degree must directly relate to the position where an HR manager did not have a degree in HR management, reversed AAO for ignoring evidence, including expert opinion, that the duties were specialized and complex). Indeed, 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A)(4), arguably like in Tapis, recognizes that INA 214(i)(1) requires that the specialty occupation encompasses a bachelor’s degree in the specific specialty “or its equivalent”.

INA §214(i)(1) clearly provides for a broader interpretation of a specialty occupation. The USCIS is erroneously interpreting this provision when denying H-1B cases. The denials have become more rampant under President Trump’s Buy American Hire American Executive order, and we have blogged extensively on this unfortunate trend, herehere and here.  There is a good basis to challenge these H-1B denials based on the statutory provision itself.

The Draconian Documentation Regime For Third Party Arrangements in H-1B Visa Petitions

The attacks on the H-1B visa program by the Trump administration continue unabated. On February 22, 2018,  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)  published a policy memorandum entitled Contracts and Itineraries Requirements for H-1B Petitions Involving Third-Party Worksites (Third-Party Memo) clarifying that USCIS may request detailed documentation to ensure that a legitimate employer-employee relationship is maintained while an employee is working at a third-party worksite.

USCIS said this clarifies existing regulatory requirements relating to H-1B petitions filed for workers who will be employed at one or more third-party worksites. “This policy memorandum makes clear that employers must provide contracts and itineraries for employees who will work at a third-party location,” USCIS said. The guidance explains that for an H-1B petition involving a third-party worksite to be approved, the petitioner must show by a preponderance of evidence that, among other things:

  • The beneficiary will be employed in a specialty occupation; and
  • The employer will maintain an employer-employee relationship with the beneficiary for the duration of the requested validity period.

When H-1B beneficiaries are placed at third-party worksites, petitioners must demonstrate that they have specific and non-speculative qualifying assignments in a specialty occupation for that beneficiary for the entire time requested on the petition, the guidance states. While an H-1B petition may be approved for up to three years, USCIS will, in its discretion, generally limit the approval period to the length of time demonstrated that the beneficiary will be placed in non-speculative work and during which the petitioner will maintain the requisite employer-employee relationship.

In a related news release to the Third-Party Memo, USCIS said the updated policy guidance aligns with President Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order and directive to protect the interests of U.S. workers. “Employment-based petitioners who circumvent the worker protections outlined in the nation’s immigration laws not only injure U.S. workers (e.g., their wages and job opportunities), but also the foreign workers for whom they are petitioning,” the release stated.

Although the purpose of the Third-Party Memo is to exercise more scrutiny on contractual arrangements with third parties, the USCIS acknowledges that such arrangements may be a legitimate and frequently used business model under the H-1B visa program.  The arrangement typically involves a third-party client who solicits service providers to deliver a product or fill a position at their worksite. In some cases, the petitioner may place the H-1B worker directly with the client. In other cases, there may be one or more intermediaries between the petitioner and the end client, commonly referred to as vendors. As the relationship between the petitioner and the beneficiary becomes more attenuated through intermediaries such as contractors, vendors or brokers, there is a greater need for the petitioner to specifically trace how it will maintain an employer-employee relationship with the beneficiary. For the very first time, the Third-Party Memo drills further into vendor concepts and acknowledges the role of “primary vendors” who have an established or preferred relationship with a client, or “implementing vendors,” who bid on IT projects with a client and then implement the contract using their own staff. Primary and implementing vendors will turn to secondary vendors to fill staffing needs on individual projects. USCIS acknowledges that the ultimate client project may be staffed by a team of H-1B beneficiaries who were petitioned by different, unrelated employers.   USCIS will need corroborating evidence to substantiate a claim of actual work in a specialty occupation, such as contracts and work orders, including documentation to show the relationship between the petitioner, intervening vendors and the end client.

The need to document such third-party arrangements is not new. The USCIS has used Donald Neufeld’s January 2010 guidance (“Neufeld Memo”) to provide a framework for demonstrating that an employer-employee relationship exists.  According to the Neufeld Memo, “The petitioner will have met the relationship test, if, in the totality of the circumstances, a petitioner is able to present evidence to establish its right to control the beneficiary’s employment. In assessing the requisite degree of control, the officer should be mindful of the nature of the petitioner’s business and the type of work of the beneficiary.” The Neufeld Memo emphasized the need for the petitioner to demonstrate its right to control the employment of the H-1B worker. As the relationship got more attenuated through intermediaries, USCIS has questioned the petitioner’s right of control over the beneficiary’s employment through requests for evidence. The new policy guidance recognizes the existence of intermediaries such as vendors as legitimate under the H-1B visa program. However, the Third-Party Memo suggests that in addition to contracts and work orders, the petitioner may be able to demonstrate that the beneficiary has an actual work assignment in a specialty occupation by providing a combination of the following or similar types of following evidence:

  • Evidence of actual work assignments, which may include technical documentation, milestone tables, marketing analysis, cost-benefit analysis, brochures, and funding documents.
  • Copies of relevant, signed contractual agreements between the petitioner and all other companies involved in the beneficiary’s placement, if the petitioner has not directly contracted with the third-party worksite.
  • Copies of detailed statements of work or work orders signed by an authorized official or the ultimate end-client companywhere the work will actually be performed by the beneficiary. The statement should detail the specialized duties the beneficiary will perform, the qualifications that are required to perform the job duties, the duration of the job, and the hours to be worked.
  • A letter signed by an authorized official of each ultimate end-client company where the beneficiary will actually work. The lettershould provide information, such as a detailed description of the specialized duties the beneficiary will perform, the qualifications required to perform those duties, the duration of the job, salary or wages paid, hours worked, benefits, a detailed description of who will supervise the beneficiary and the beneficiary’s duties, and any other related evidence.

(Emphasis added.)

The need to submit detailed statements from the end-client company documentation regarding the specialized duties that the H-1B beneficiary will perform, as well as the qualifications that are required to perform those duties, would be extremely onerous. Since the end-client is not the ultimate employer of the beneficiary, most clients would be reluctant to provide such letters. Indeed, providing such letters would be tantamount to acknowledging an employment relationship with the beneficiary, which the end client has avoided by arranging to contract with the petitioner or intervening vendors for a project or to fill positions.

Requiring the end client to provide a detailed discussion of the assignment and its requirements would directly contradict the Neufeld Memo, which insists that the employer has the right of control over the H-1B beneficiary’s employment. If the end client sets the requirements for the position, then the end client would be acting as the employer and controlling the H-1B worker’s employment. This would have other implications for the end client under a joint employer liability theory, and it would not be surprising for an end client to be reluctant in providing a detailed statement about the position and its requirements, especially when its relationship with the petitioner is attenuated through layers of vendors. However, in Defensor v. Meissner, 201 F.3d 384 (5th Cir 2000), the Fifth Circuit held that if the H-1B worker is placed at a third-party client site, it is important to demonstrate that both the petitioning employer and the client require a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field. The USCIS frequently cites   Defensor v. Meissner in requests for evidence requiring further details about the position from the end client even while it requests evidence relating to the petitioning employer’s right of control over the H-1B worker’s employment at the client’s worksite. In some ways, Defensor v. Meissner contradicts the requirements under the Neufeld Memo, although immigration practitioners are not unfamiliar in playing the role of contortionist when making arguments on behalf of clients that are subject to the USCIS’s contradictory requirements! Perhaps the conflict between Defensor v. Meissner and the Neufeld Memo can be reconciled because the petitioner must demonstrate that it has the right of ultimate control over the H-1B worker’s employment in order to demonstrate the employer-employee relationship even though there could be more immediate control by the client at its worksite.

When the end client is reluctant to issue further details of the H-1B worker’s employment, the supplementary guidance to the Neufeld Memo issued in March 12 2012 (March 2012 Supplementary Guidance) could also come to the rescue.  USCIS noted that the Third-Party Memo is intended to be read together with the Neufeld Memo and as a complement to that policy. The March 2012 Supplementary Guidance further clarifies that a petition involving a third-party worksite may be approved if the petitioner can demonstrate that it will retain the right to control the beneficiary. A number of different forms of documentation may be provided to demonstrate that a right to control exists, such as a letter from the end-client, but such a letter is not an actual requirement.  Question 5 of the March 2012 Guidance states as follows:

Q5: Am I required to submit a letter or other documentation from the end-client that identifies the beneficiary to demonstrate that a valid employer-employee relationship will exist between the petitioner and beneficiary if the beneficiary will perform services at an end-client/third-party location?

A5: No. While documents from the end-client may help USCIS determine whether a valid employer-employee relationship will exist, this type of documentation is not required. You may submit a combination of any documents to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the required relationship will exist. The types of evidence listed in the memorandum are not exhaustive. Adjudicators will review and weigh all the evidence submitted to determine whether you have met your burden in establishing that a qualifying employer-employee relationship will exist. (Emphasis added.)

Furthermore, Question 13 of the March 2012 Guidance states as follows:

Q13: The memorandum provides an example of when a computer consulting company had not established a valid employer-employee relationship. Are there any situations in which a consulting company or a staffing company would be able to establish a valid employer-employee relationship?

A13: Yes. A consulting company or staffing company may be able to establish that a valid employer-employee relationship will exist, including where the beneficiary will be working at a third-party worksite, if the petitioning consulting or staffing company can demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that it has the right to control the work of the beneficiary. Relevant factors include, but are not limited to, whether the petitioner will pay the beneficiary’s salary; whether the petitioner will determine the beneficiary’s location and relocation assignments (i.e. where the beneficiary is to report to work); and whether the petitioner will perform supervisory duties such as conducting performance reviews, training, and counseling for the beneficiary. The memorandum provides a non-exhaustive list of types of evidence that could demonstrate an employer-employee relationship. (Emphasis added.)

Questions & Answers: USCIS Issues Guidance Memorandum on Establishing the “Employee-Employer Relationship” in H-1B Petitions, rev. March 2012.

Despite the issuance of the Third-Party Memo insisting on further details about the H-1B worker’s job duties and requirements from the end client, petitioners may also want to point to the March 2012 Supplementary Guidance to the Neufeld Memo, which has not been reversed. Thus, when a document may not be available, a petitioner can point to the March 2012 Supplementary Guidance and provide a combination of any documents to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the employer-employee relationship will exist. The Third-Party Memo puts additional obstacles. It rescinds a prior 1995 policy guidance and insists that a precise itinerary be submitted that requires services to be performed in more than one location. The prior guidance only required general statements, but the Third-Party Memo requires exact dates of employment and the locations of the services to be performed. The itinerary should detail when and where the beneficiary will be performing the services, and the Third-Party Memo sternly asserts that there can be no exception from the regulatory requirement at 8 CFR 214.2(h)(2)(i)(B).

On the other hand, the itinerary should only be required when the services will be performed at more than one location. If the H-1B worker will only be placed at only one client location, then there should be no insistence on an itinerary by the USCIS.  If the work assignment should change later and cannot be anticipated at the time of filing the H-1B petition, resulting in a change of location, Matter of Simeio Solutions, LLC, 26 I&N Dec. 542 (AA0 2015), has already contemplated this and requires an employer to file an amended H-1B petition if the change of location requires a new Labor Condition Application. The USCIS should not be asking for an itinerary when the new job location cannot be anticipated, but the petitioner will file an amendment pursuant to Matter of Simeio Solutions. But under the Third-Party Memo, if the documentation does not clearly indicate that the work assignment will last for the duration of the proposed H-1B validity period, the petition may be approved for less than three years. At the time of filing an H-1B extension, if the petitioner cannot establish that the petitioner met the H-1B requirements when the worker was placed at the client site, including maintaining the right to control the beneficiary’s employment, the Third-Party Memo suggests that the extension may be denied even if it approved the new petition.

The H-1B visa has long been identified in the mind of its many critics with India, perhaps because of the vigorous use of this visa by Indian nationals, particularly in the IT industry. The Neufeld Memo, along with Matter of Simeio and now the Third-Party Memo, which was inspired by President Trump’s Buy American Hire American Executive Order,   is a direct attack on the business model whose consistent efficiency has promoted reliability and quality in the IT industry, a condition whose existence is directly due to the ability of major technology 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,  promote diversity of product development and more jobs for Americans.  This is what the oft-criticized “job shop” readily provides, which has been recognized as a legitimate business model in the Third-Party Memo. 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 “job shop” is, in reality, the engine of technological ingenuity on which progress in the global information age largely depends.  While most would not want to openly admit it, one wonders whether this business model would be so maligned and attacked if it was developed in a Scandinavian country rather than India. Indian H-1B workers have been unfairly disparaged even in the media for displacing American workers as we saw in the Disney episode (see my prior blog, Putting Disney and H-1B Visas in Perspective) without any regard to the benefits these H-1B workers ultimately bring to the American economy.  The fact that the USCIS seeks to restrict this development, rather than to nurture it not only reflects the chronically insular character of U.S. immigration policy but the new siege mentality under the Trump administration that has deprived the nation and its economic system of the capacity for job creation and growth that would otherwise benefit us all. Nowhere is this fortress mentality more evident than in the draconian document regime that was first established under the Neufeld Memo and continues to build up under the Third-Party Memo, where the lines between rhetoric and reality have become blurred, if not totally erased. Yet, even here, the increasingly difficult to comply requirements through successive policy memoranda, including the latest Third-Party Memo, cannot shield American workers from the winds of change that will continue to blow. Far better would it be for the Trump administration and USCIS to welcome what must come by shedding the shibboleths of Buy American Hire American and thereby place such winds at our back.

(The author acknowledges the assistance of Eleyteria Diakopoulous who is a student in the JD program at Brooklyn Law School and is presently an Extern at Cyrus D. Mehta & Partners PLLC)

The AAO Finds That Entry Level Wages Do Not Automatically Preclude H-1B Visa Classification

By Cyrus D. Mehta and Sophia Genovese

As we have previously blogged, many of the Requests for Evidence (RFEs) issued to petitions filed under the FY 2018 H-1B visa lottery objected to the H-1B worker being paid an entry level wage.

The AAO recently took up the issue of Level I wages in two decisions, Matter of B-C-, Inc., ID #1139516 (AAO Jan 25, 2018); and Matter of G-J-S-USA, Inc., ID# 1182139 (AAO Jan. 25, 2018), concluding in both cases that Level I wages are not determinative of whether a position is indeed a specialty occupation.

In Matter of B-C-, the Petitioner sought to temporarily employ the Beneficiary as a geotechnical engineer-in-training (EIT) under the H-1B classification. The Director of the Vermont Service Center denied the petition concluding that the Petitioner did not establish that the submitted LCA corresponded with the H-1B petition. The Director determined that the Level 1 wage was incorrect by comparing the proffered duties directly with DOL’s generic definition of a Level I wage. Id. at 3. According to the DOL’s Prevailing Wage Policy Guidance, referenced in the Matter of B-C- decision, Level I (entry) wage rates

…are assigned to job offers for beginning level employees who have only a basic understanding of the occupation. These employees perform routine tasks that require limited, if any, exercise of judgment. The tasks provide experience and familiarization with the employer’s methods, practices, and programs. The employees may perform higher level work for training and developmental purposes. These employees work under close supervision and receive specific instructions on required tasks and results expected. Their work is closely monitored and reviewed for accuracy.

U.S. Dep’t of Labor, Emp’t & Training Admin., Prevailing Wage Determination Policy Guidance, Nonagric. Immigration Programs (rev. Nov. 2009).

The AAO, however, found that this was not the correct analysis for assessing whether or not an LCA properly corresponds with the petition. The Director, instead, should have compared the proffered job duties to those associated with the appropriate Occupational Information Network (O*NET) occupation.  On appeal, Petitioner asserted that an EIT is entry level by its very definition. The AAO acknowledged that by its plain terms, an EIT appeared to be entry-level, but a hasty review would be insufficient. In order to determine whether Petitioner properly selected a Level I wage, the AAO analyzed whether Petitioner selected the most relevant standard occupational classification (SOC) code, and then compared the experience, education, special skills required, and any other requirements provided in the petition and O*Net classification. Here, the description and tasks in O*NET for civil engineer generally coincided with the proffered job duties, concluding that the Petitioner selected the appropriate SOC code.  Next, the AAO analyzed whether the proffered position required experience, education, special skills, or supervisory duties beyond those listed in the related O*NET occupation. Here, the AAO found that the proffered position did not require more education, experience, special skills or supervisory duties beyond what was listed on O*Net, and, thus, was properly classified as a Level I wage.  The appeal was sustained.

In Matter of G-J-S-USA, Inc., the Petitioner sought to temporarily employ the Beneficiary as an investment banking analyst under the H-1B classification. Matter of G-J-S-USA, Inc.  The Director denied the petition concluding that the Petitioner did not establish that the submitted LCA corresponded with the H-1B petition where (s)he believed that the designated Level I wage was incorrect.  On appeal, the Petitioner asserted that an incorrect methodology was used. Id. Although the AAO found that USCIS erred in its methodology by comparing the job duties of the proffered position to the definition of a Level I wage given in the DOL’s guidance, the AAO ultimately held that the Level I wage assignment was indeed improper.

The AAO explained that the Director should have applied the five-step process outlined in the DOL’s prevailing wage guidance which required comparing the experience, education, special skills, and supervisory duties described in the O*NET description to those required by the employer for the proffered position. After employing the proper analysis, the AAO found that the assignment of a Level I wage was improper, and that the petition was thus not approvable. The Petitioner had specifically failed on step three, which involved a comparison of the education requirements. The Petitioner’s stated minimum education requirement was a master’s degree in finance or a related field. Appendix D of the DOL guidance, however, indicates that the usual education level for a financial analyst was a bachelor’s degree. According to the AAO, the master’s degree requirement warranted a one level increase in the wage and the appeal was dismissed. Id.

Critically, the AAO highlighted in both cases that there is no inherent inconsistency between an entry-level position and a specialty occupation. Most professionals begin their careers in entry-level positions; however, this does not preclude USCIS from classifying the entry-level position as a specialty occupation. Conversely, a Level IV wage does not inherently mean that an occupation qualifies as a specialty occupation if the position has not satisfied the requirements of a specialty occupation. As the AAO stated, while wage levels are indeed relevant, wages do not by themselves define or change the character of the occupation. On the other hand, according to the AAO, the key issue is whether the LCA corresponds to the H-1B petition. If the wage on the LCA does not correspond to duties and requirements described in the H-1B petition, then the H-1B petition can be denied.

It is indeed salutary that the AAO confirms that H-1B eligibility cannot be denied solely on the ground that a proffered position is classified as a Level I wage. 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. Still, the AAO substituting its purported expertise for the DOL’s expertise in determining wage levels on the LCA is of great concern. The AAO stated, “When assessing the wage level indicated on the LCA, USCIS does not purport to supplant DOL’s responsibility with respect to wage determinations.” But the AAO did precisely just that in Matter of G-S-J-USA, Inc. by usurping what DOL knows how to do best, which is making a wage determination.

The AAO relied on Appendix D in the prevailing wage guidance that provides a list of professional occupations with their corresponding usual education. If an occupation requires only a bachelor’s degree in Appendix D, and the employer requires a Master’s degree, which was the case in Matter of G-S-J-USA, Inc., then according to the DOL guidance, the employer is required to increase the wage level by one notch even if there is no experience requirement. It is not clear from the AAO decision whether it selected the appropriate occupation under Appendix D, which again is in the realm of DOL’s expertise. Even assuming the AAO arrived at the correct comparable occupation under Appendix D and the employer did not bump up the wage level, this ought to be considered as an LCA violation, which the DOL to deal with in the event of an LCA audit, and should not undermine the employer’s ability to employer the worker in a specialty occupation, resulting in USCIS outright denying the H-1B petition.

The two new AAO decisions teach that it may be a best practice for an employer to request and obtain a prevailing wage determination from the DOL’s National Prevailing Wage Center prior to filing an LCA. As a practical matter, though, obtaining such a prevailing wage determination can take several weeks, and employers must timely file H-1B petitions within the first five business days of April each year to be considered under the H-1B lottery, or in the case of an extension, before the current H-1B status expires, or before the H-1B worker wishes to port to a new employer. In the event the employer disagrees with the NPWC determination, an appeal to the Board of Alien Labor Certification can take several months.  It is thus important to check Appendix D before the employer decides to require a Master’s degree and still pay a Level 1 wage.  On occasion, a position may require, at a minimum, an advanced degree. For example, a law degree is required for minimum entry into legal profession. However, an employer seeking to employ a new graduate would still be allowed to pay an entry level wage to the prospective employee under the DOL guidance. For lawyers, the DOL acknowledges that prospective employees need a professional degree prior to entering the profession, and thus a Level I wage is appropriate for an entry-level attorney position. Similarly, Market Research Analysts, Economists, and Urban Planners, among others, typically require a Master’s degree, for entry into the field. Attention should also be paid to other factors that may cause a bump up in the wage level, such as special skills or language requirements that may not be consistent with the skills listed in O*Net for a specific occupation. Thus, if the employer requires a foreign language skill, it may or may not need to bump up the wage level depending on whether a foreign language is inherently required for the job but which does not increase the complexity or seniority of the position. All this further confirms the point we make that assessing whether there is an excessive educational requirement or a skill lies within DOL’s rather than USCIS’s expertise.

Still, until the AAO changes its position, employers must carefully review the DOL Wage Guidance and Appendix D when assigning a wage on the LCA in the brave new world of H-1B adjudications in order to stave off a needless denial!

(The authors acknowledge the assistance of Eleyteria Diakopoulous who is a student in the JD program at Brooklyn Law School and is presently an Extern at Cyrus D. Mehta & Partners PLLC)

Stopping H-1B Carnage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing With The Dreaded RFE – Reflections Of An Immigration Lawyer

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

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

The following extract from the Reuters article is worth reproducing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 You can continue to read the entire article here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.