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Guidance To The Perplexed After USCIS Sneaks In Ban On Third-Party Placement Of STEM OPT Workers

Recently, without any prior notice, USCIS quietly updated its STEM OPT webpage to reflect a ban on the placement of STEM OPT workers at third-party client sites. As background, on March 11, 2016 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a final rule amending regulations to expand Optional Practical Training (OPT) for students with U.S. degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM). This new rule took effect on May 10, 2016 and replaced the 17-month STEM OPT extension previously available to STEM students most significantly expanding the extension period to 24 months. The rule set forth various requirements that must be met by schools, students and employers. Briefly, in order to obtain 24-month STEM OPT, the employer must have an Employer Identification Number (EIN) and be enrolled in the E-Verify program. The employment opportunity must be directly related to the student’s qualifying STEM degree and there must be an employer-employee relationship between the employer and the student.  Therefore, employment for staffing agencies where an employer-employee relationship is not maintained or other labor-for-hire arrangements will not qualify. Within 10 days of the employment start date, the student and the new employer must complete a Training Plan on Form I-983 and submit it to the Designated Student Officer (DSO). I previously blogged about STEM OPT here where I examined the Form I-983.

In another blog, I specifically examined whether the student could be employed at a third-party client site and argued that there isn’t anything in the governing regulations that expressly forbids this type of employment. The employer should be able to satisfactorily demonstrate the employer-employee relationship and its control over the student despite placement of the student at an end client site. The Form I-983 must, among other things: (1) Identify the goals for the STEM practical training opportunity, including specific knowledge, skills, or techniques that will be imparted to the student; (2) explain how those goals will be achieved through the work-based learning opportunity with the employer; (3) describe a performance evaluation process; and (4) describe methods of oversight and supervision. Although having the student work at a client site makes for a more difficult case, I opined that if the employer already has employees at that site who can implement the employer’s training program by providing the training, on-site supervision and evaluation of the student, then the Form I-983 ought to be approvable. Since the implementation of the STEM OPT rule, thousands of students have obtained the required authorization to receive their STEM OPT at third party client sites. This authorization required the full disclosure of the employment arrangement to the DSO.

USCIS recently updated its website to now state:

[T]he training experience must take place on-site at the employer’s place of business or worksite(s) to which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has authority to conduct employer site visits to ensure that the employer is meeting program requirements. This means that ICE must always have access to a student’s worksite; if the student is sent to different worksite locations as part of the training opportunity, ICE must be able to access such worksite locations. For instance, the training experience may not take place at the place of business or worksite of the employer’s clients or customers because ICE would lack authority to visit such sites.

Based on this update, the placement of a STEM OPT worker at a third-party client site is apparently unacceptable because ICE lacks authority to visit third-party client sites.  No explanation was provided as to exactly why ICE supposedly lacks the authority to conduct a site visit on the premises of a third-party client if that client site had been clearly listed on an approved Form I-983. The Form I-983 sets forth that DHS may, at its discretion, conduct a site visit. It would be reasonable to conclude that by listing a third party client site as the student’s work location on the I-983, that the worksite is open to a site visit by ICE.

By updating the USCIS website with no prior notice and no opportunity for comment, USCIS has effectively created a state of confusion and has left employers and students, with previously approved Forms I-983, unsure of what action they must now take. Have employers been unknowingly violating the STEM OPT rule? Will USCIS now deny H-1B petitions for change of status for OPT students employed at third party client sites? Despite a denial of a request for a change of status, the underlying H-1B petition could still be approved but the STEM OPT worker would have to leave the US and apply for an H-1B visa abroad, a process that can come with its own set of issues such as administrative processing delays that can force the visa applicant to remain abroad for weeks or even several months.

Should employers scramble to relocate all STEM OPT workers to their headquarters or other office locations? And, if they do relocate them, would this change in worksite location be considered a material change necessitating a modification of the approved I-983? Based on how USCIS chose to update the STEM OPT rule, there are no immediate and definitive answers to these questions. However, some immigration attorneys are advising employers to relocate STEM OPT workers to headquarters or other office locations where there would be no question regarding ICE’s authority to conduct a site visit. On the issue of a relocation being a material change, while the regulations at 8 C.F.R. §214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C)(9)(ii) do not specifically list relocation as an example of a material change, relocation is considered a material change in the H-1B context which leads one to think that it would similarly be considered in the STEM OPT context. Also, there is the potential practical problem of the student not being at the location listed on the I-983 when ICE attempts to conduct a site visit. On the other hand, since USCIS claims that ICE would not go to a client site anyway, due to a supposed lack of authority to do so, then there is a good argument that a relocation is not a material change that necessitates a modification of the I-983.

Is there any basis for continuing to employ STEM OPT workers at third-party client sites? Some immigration attorneys are advising employers to stay the course while we wait for additional guidance regarding USCIS’ update to its STEM OPT page. One main basis is the fact that the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is governed by ICE and not by USCIS and therefore ICE ought to present any amendments to the program. Another reason is the fact that the mere modification of a web page does not have the same force as an amendment to the regulation or a Policy Memorandum. USCIS should issue a proposed regulation and allow a period for public comment. In addition, provided all the requirements are being met under the regulations found at 8 C.F.R. §214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C)(6)-(12), then the employer’s decision to continue to employ the STEM OPT worker at the third party client site may be justifiable. The following could serve as a reasonable defense although there is no guarantee that the DHS will agree:  Under 8 C.F.R. §214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C)(7)(ii), the I-983 clearly identified the goals of the training and explained how these goals would be met through a work-based learning opportunity with the employer and described the employer’s performance evaluation process including how oversight and supervision would occur at the third party client site perhaps by the employer’s more senior staff also stationed at that site.  This in turn may also meet the requirement under 8 C.F.R. §214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C)(10)(i) that the employer have sufficient resources and personnel to provide the training. Furthermore,  if ICE would be welcomed at the client site (similar to how USCIS site visits are welcomed in the H-1B context) where ICE could satisfy itself that the employer possesses and maintains the ability and resources to provide structured and guided work-based learning experiences (8 C.F.R. §214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C)(11)), then the mere fact that the STEM OPT worker is stationed at a third party client site ought not invalidate a previously approved placement.

Still, the practical fallout may not be worth it and employers and students alike are justifiably worried.  There are many unanswered questions and employers are hesitant to make any changes when it is not clear that these changes are actually required under the regulations. It appears that this is yet another way that USCIS is seeking to comply with President Trump’s Buy American, Hire American Executive Order that allegedly protects US workers. The ultimate success of a challenge to USCIS’ modification of their webpage is therefore hard to predict. But what is also clear is that the STEM OPT rule ought to encompass all kinds of modern work arrangements, including working at third party sites. US businesses should not be deprived of the opportunity to engage talented foreign students. DHS ought to bear in mind that the industries which rely on assigning workers to third party client sites – such as the Information Technology industry – are the industries that give American businesses that necessary competitive edge. It is not clear how seeking to destroy theses industries by wholly affecting how they do business is supposed to make America great again.

 

The Evolving Rights Of Deportable Immigrants As Seen In The Case Of Ravi Ragbir

By Cyrus D. Mehta and Sophia Genovese

Foreign nationals with removal orders are in an extremely vulnerable situation. Even if they are asked to report on a regular basis under an order of supervision, there is no guarantee that a whimsical ICE officer the next they show up to an interview may decide to apprehend this person with handcuffs and expel them from the country.  ICE may also decide to make a pre-dawn arrest of an undocumented person at home in front of family members including children, arrest  those who are attempting to regularize this status, or even victims of domestic violence seeking to escape their abusers.

Or if this person is an activist protesting against ICE’s tactics and fighting for the rights of immigrants, ICE could retaliate by arresting him or her with the goal of removing this so called “irritant” from the United States.  Indeed, no one appears to be beyond the reach of ICE’s heavy handedness in the Trump era.

At issue is whether a removable person has been allowed to stay in the US, and regularly report to ICE, can this person one day be suddenly apprehended without the chance to say goodbye to his family?

This was the very issue raised in Ragbir v. Sessions before Judge Katherine B. Forrest in a petition for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Ravi Ragbir has lived in the US for over 25 years, but in the last ten years was subject to a final order of removal based on a deportable criminal conviction. Because of his special contributions to the community as the Executive Director of New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, ICE until recently allowed him to remain in the US with his citizen wife and daughter, granting him an order of supervision and four administrative stays of removal. On January 11, 2018, however, while the administrative stay was still in place, ICE suddenly and inexplicably detained him during a routine check in.

Mr. Ragbir’s petition for habeas corpus was granted. The decision in Ragbir v. Sessions is astounding as it acknowledged the right of a removable person to say goodbye to loved ones and leave in an orderly and dignified fashion, especially one who did not pose a flight risk, was not a danger to the community and who was routinely checking in with ICE. The Court wrote that “[i]t ought not to be – and it has never before been – that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust.”

Although the Court’s decision granting the habeas corpus petition was thin on legal authority, it broadly relied on the Fifth Amendment’s liberty and due process guarantees. “In such circumstances, the Fifth Amendment’s liberty and due process guarantees are North Stars that must guide our actions,” the Court eloquently stated. Although Mr. Ragbir had a final order of removal, “his interest in due process, required that we not pluck him out of his life without a moment’s notice, remove him form his family and community without a moment’s notice.” He should have at the very minimum been given to understand that he must organize his affairs and leave by a due date.

As this victory was being celebrated, Mr. Ragbir was still required to report to ICE for removal on February 10, 2018. This would have possibly been in compliance with Judge Forrest’s order that he be asked to leave by a due date in an orderly fashion rather than suddenly arrested and separated from his family. However, Mr. Ragbir, together with New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, CASA de Maryland, Detention Watch Network, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the New York Immigration Coalition filed suit on February 9, 2018, Ragbir v. Homan,  in the Southern District of New York to challenge the recent targeting of immigrant rights activists by federal immigration officials. The government has agreed to stay Mr. Ragbir’s deportation temporarily pending further briefing in this action. The lawsuit seeks, among other forms of relief, a preliminary and permanent injunction restraining the government from taking further action to effectuate a deportation order against Mr. Ragbir, while also seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction restraining the government from selectively enforcing immigration laws against individuals based on protected political speech.

It is hoped that Mr. Ragbir’s case will shine the torch on the draconian impact of deportation on the individual and the family that is left behind in the US. There have been far too many instances where removable persons have been suddenly and abruptly plucked from their families without giving them a chance to leave in an orderly and dignified fashion, or to consider allowing them to remain while they collaterally challenge their deportation orders or seek to reopen them. And as was done under the President Obama administration, allow such people to remain in the US if they have family members and have lived a life without incident apart from the ground that caused their deportation order. It is important for all of us to examine our collective morality when the government preys upon the most vulnerable populations among us.

As early as 1945, the Supreme Court in Bridges v. Wixon held:

Though deportation is not technically a criminal proceeding, it visits a great hardship on the individual, and deprives him of the right to stay and live and work in this land of freedom. That deportation is a penalty — at times, a most serious one — cannot be doubted. Meticulous care must be exercised lest the procedure by which he is deprived of that liberty not meet the essential standards of fairness.

Under our immigration system, people may be removed for a number of reasons. In Mr. Ragbir’s case, although he was a lawful permanent resident, his order of deportation was based upon a felony conviction for wire fraud in 2001. Mr. Ragbir paid his dues for that conviction under the criminal justice system. If Mr. Ragbir had been a citizen, he would not have been in this predicament. But because of his non-citizen status, he was also put in removal proceedings and thus was punished further for his criminal conviction even though as a citizen he would not be. A deportation proceeding is a civil proceeding, and the purpose is to remove the non-citizen rather than to punish, and yet it ironically results in a far greater punishment than the criminal proceeding.

Others are removed simply for not being in lawful status. It is a myth that undocumented immigration can be controlled or eliminated. Indeed, undocumented immigration is an inexorable outcome of restrictive immigration policy, a situation bound to worsen under the Trump Administration’s proposals to severely limit legal pathways. No matter how many more ICE agents that the Trump administration may add to enforce immigration law, there will always be undocumented immigrants who will desperately try to stay in the US to be with loved ones.

If ICE enforces the law harshly and egregiously, they will be even less effective as law suits like Mr. Ragbir has filed will push them back, as we have already begun to see in courts in Southern California and New Jersey. Judge André Birotte in Los Angeles, ruling on the unconstitutionality of ICE detainers (requests to local law enforcement to detain an individual for an additional 48 hours so ICE may decide whether or not to place the individual into removal proceedings), wrote “The LASD [Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department] officers have no authority to arrest individuals for civil immigration offenses, and thus, detaining individuals beyond their date for release violated the individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights.”  Judge Esther Salas in New Jersey temporarily halted the deportation of Indonesian Christians with “administratively final orders of removal predating 2009 and were subject to an order of supervision,” pending further adjudication of their claims. As the ACLU has argued, “This case involves life-and-death stakes and we are simply asking that these longtime residents be given opportunity to show that they are entitled to remain here.”

No amount of cruel and egregious enforcement measures can eliminate undocumented immigration. Rather, having sensible immigration laws that allow foreign nationals to more easily legalize their status will be more effective in solving the undocumented immigration problem in America, and would be more consistent with its values. This would be a better way to deal with the issue rather than to cruelly pluck people away from their families in violation of their rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution.