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Breakthrough in Matter of V-S-G- Inc.: AC21 Beneficiaries Given Opportunity to Be Heard When I-140 is Revoked

The law generally recognizes that petitioners control their visa petitions. See 8 CFR 103.2(a)(3).  A beneficiary cannot force a petitioner to pursue or maintain a visa petition. Therefore, USCIS communicates only with petitioners, not the beneficiaries, with respect to notifications such as Requests for Evidence, approvals, and even a Notice of Intent to Revoke (NOIR) of an approved petition. A beneficiary is not considered an affected party with legal standing with respect to filing appeals and motions. See 8 CFR 103.3(a)(1)(iii)(B).

However, the traditional distinction between a petitioner, beneficiary and affected party breaks down when the law allows the beneficiary to leave the original petitioner and port to a same or similar job under INA 204(j) that was enacted via the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 (AC21). Although the intent of the original employer who filed the petition to employ the beneficiary may cease to exist, the original petition still remains valid when the beneficiary ports to a same or similar job with a new employer.

The Appeals Administrative Office (AAO) has adopted Matter of V-S-G- Inc., Adopted Decision 2017-06 (AAO Nov. 11, 2017), which now  recognizes that beneficiaries who have ported to a same or similar to the job under INA 204(j) are entitled to receive notices pertaining to the potential revocation of their approved employment-based I-140 visa petition. The USCIS also issued accompanying guidance in the form of a Policy Memorandum on November 11, 2017.  We previously advocated for this outcome here, here and here, and welcome the AAO’s recognition that beneficiaries who have ported are entitled to notification and the opportunity to be heard when their approved I-140 petitions are in jeopardy.

The ability for a foreign national worker to move to a new job is crucial when there is a delay in the adjudication of the I-485 application for adjustment of status. If an I-485 application has been pending for more than 180 days, under INA 204(j), the I-140 petition shall remain valid with respect to a new job if it is in the same or a similar occupational classification as the job for which the petition was filed. Some I-485 applications have been pending for more than a decade, such as those in the class of July 2007, after the employment second (EB-2) and third preferences (EB-3) for India became current and then retrogressed. Even in the Trump era, I-485 applications  filed are likely to remain pending for over 180 days as the beneficiary will be scheduled for personal interviews at the local USCIS office.   This means that so long as the worker “ports” to a same or similar job, the validity of the underlying labor certification and the I-140 petition is kept intact. The new employer is not required to restart the green card process on behalf of this worker who is the beneficiary of the approved I-140 petition filed by the former employer. INA 204(j) job portability is a great blessing, although it can also have pitfalls. If the USCIS chooses to revoke the already approved I-140 petition because it suspects that the employer committed fraud, but the worker has now moved onto a new job, who should get notice of the USCIS’s intent to revoke?

Matter of V-S-G-Inc. recognizes that a beneficiary who has ported is within the statute’s zone of interests following the Supreme Court’s decision in Lexmark Int’l Inc. v. Static Control Components, which held that a plaintiff has the ability to sue when his or her claim is within the zone of interests a statute or regulation protects.    Courts have agreed that the original employer should not be the exclusive party receiving notice when the worker has ported to a new employer. Beneficiaries who have ported to new employers fall within INA 204(j)’s zone of interests and have standing to participate in visa revocation proceedings. See Mantena v. Johnson and Kurupati v. USCIS.  The original employer no longer has any stake in the process and may also be antagonistic toward the beneficiary of the I-140 petition who has already left the employment many years ago. The beneficiary in addition to porting off the I-140 petition provided the adjustment application has been pending for 180 or more days, can also recapture the priority date of the original I-140 and apply it to a new I-140 petition filed by the new employer. Thus, a worker who was sponsored by the original employer in the EB-3 can potentially re-boot into EB-2 through a new employer, and recapture the priority date applicable to the original I-140 petition. While the EB-2 may also be backlogged for India, it is not as dire as the EB-3. If the USCIS chooses to revoke the original I-140 petition, not only will the I-485 adjustment application be in jeopardy, but also the recaptured priority date, thus setting back the foreign worker by many years in the EB-3 green card backlog. It is thus imperative that someone other than the original employer get notification of the I-140 petition who will have no interest in challenging it, and may have also possibly gone out of business.

The AAO in Matter of V-S-G- while endorsing the holdings in Mantena v. Johnson and Kurupati v. USCIS, disagreed with the Seventh Circuit’s holding in in Musunuru v. Lynch. In Musunuru, while recognizing the beneficiary of an approved I-140 petition as an affected party,   adamantly held that the beneficiary’s current employer should get notice of the revocation. This is what the Seventh Circuit in Musunuru stated:

We so hold because Congress intends for a nonimmigrant worker’s new employer to adopt the visa petition filed by his old employer when the worker changes employers under the statutory portability provision. Thus, to give effect to Congress’s intention, the new employer must be treated as the de facto petitioner for the old employer’s visa petition. As the de facto petitioner, the new employer is entitled under the regulations to pre-revocation notice and an opportunity to respond, as well as to administratively challenge a revocation decision.

In a prior blog, I had argued against the holding in Musumuru that there is nothing in INA 204(j) that makes the new employer the de facto petitioner. Once the foreign national worker ports under INA 204(j), the pending green card process ought to belong to him or her. The whole idea of providing job mobility to workers caught in the EB backlog is to allow them to easily find a new employer in a same or similar field, on the strength of an employment authorization document (EAD) ensuing from the pending I-485 application, and not to oblige the new employer to adopt the old petition. This could potentially pose an obstacle to much needed job mobility for the beleaguered EB worker who is trapped in the backlog.

I am glad that the AAO in Matter of V-S-G- agrees with this position. The AAO correctly noted, “The new employer did not pay for the filing, is not responsible for maintaining the petition, is not liable for the original petitioner’s compliance or malfeasance associated with it, and cannot withdraw the petition if it no longer requires the beneficiary’s services. Nor can the new employer prevent the beneficiary from porting to yet another employer (as happened here).” The fact that the new employer has to sign an I-485J Supplement J does not give it more interests in the original employer’s petition. The new employer would in any event need to provide a letter confirming the new job offer. Form I-485J merely captures the same information that the new employer would provide in a letter relating to the job offer.

While the outcome in Matter of V-S-G- is positive for beneficiaries who have ported and who are entitled to notification, it did not go far enough. Matter of V-S-G- only recognized the beneficiary as an affected party in cases where he or she has exercised portability under INA 204(j). The AAO disagreed with the Sixth Circuit’s holding in Patel v. USCIS, which held that the beneficiary of an I-140 petition even outside the porting context had standing because he or she suffered injury that was traceable to the USICS, namely, the loss of an opportunity to become a permanent resident. INA 203(b), according to the Sixth Circuit in Patel, makes the visa available directly to the immigrant, and not the employer, which suggests that Congress gave the beneficiary a stake in the outcome of the I-140. While a pending I-485 may bolster the beneficiary’s interest in an I-140, it is not necessary. There exist old decisions that provided standing to the beneficiary of a labor certification, in the absence of a subsequent I-140 petition or an I-485 adjustment of status application. In Ramirez v. Reich,  the DC Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the non-citizen’s standing to sue, but then denied the appeal since the employer’s participation in the appeal of a labor certification denial was essential. While the holding in Ramirez was contradictory, as it recognized the standing of the non-citizen but turned down the appeal due to the lack of participation of the employer, the employer’s essentiality may have been obviated if the employer had indicated that the job offer was still available. Still, an even older 1984 case, Gladysz v. Donovan,  provides further basis for non-citizen standing even if there is no pending I-485 application. In Gladysz, the non-citizen sought judicial review after the employer’s labor certification had been denied, rather than challenged his ability to seek administrative review, and the court agreed that the plaintiff had standing as he was within the zone of interests protected under the Administrative Procedures Act.

The final Retention of EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 Immigrant Workers and Program Improvements Affecting High-Skilled Workers rule (“High Skilled Worker Rule”), which took effect on January 17, 2017, did not address notice and standing for I-140 beneficiaries under INA 204(j). Matter of V-S-G- now fills this gap. 8 CFR 205.1(b) and 205.2(b) and (c), which provide that automatic and notice-based revocations go solely to the petitioner, are no longer applicable when beneficiaries have pending I-485 applications under INA 204(j). The USCIS has instructed that revocation notices be sent to both the petitioner and beneficiary. The USCIS, however, does caution that when sending notification, certain non-public information cannot be shared with both parties such as the petitioner’s non-public financial information, including federal tax returns or information about I-140s being filed on behalf of multiple beneficiaries. Under these circumstances, the beneficiary is supposed to get more generalized information. Whether this will be advantageous to the beneficiary who is provided modified information for purposes of rebutting an intention to revoke an I-140 petition remains to be seen. However, it would be a ground for appeal to the beneficiary whose I-140 was denied because he or she did not get sufficient information in order to provide an effective rebuttal. Still, the examples given in the Policy Memorandum under which the USCIS can revoke an approved I-140 are broad and under the following headings: material error in approving the petition; fraud or willful misrepresentation of material fact; lack of a bona fide job offer; adverse new information (from a site visit or adjustment interview; and invalidation of a labor certification. One can see this as an invitation for USCIS examiners to issue more NOIRs of approved I-140 petitions especially under the Trump administration, which has sought to curb or slow down legal immigration by imposing mandatory adjustment interviews and increasing site visits.

Matter of V-S-G and the accompanying policy guidance only deal with notification to beneficiaries who have approved I-140 petitions, which the USCIS seeks to revoke. It does not deal with beneficiaries who are porting off unadjudicated I-140 petitions and concurrently filed pending I-485 applications. 8 CFR 245.25 of the High Skilled Worker Rule clarifies and codifies long standing policies regarding how a beneficiary may port under INA 204(j). With respect to porting off an unadjudicated I-140 petition, 8 CFR 245.25(a)(2)(ii)(B) clearly provides for this by stating that the I-140 must still ultimately be approved by demonstrating that it was approvable at the time of filing and until the I-485 was pending for 180 days. The rule insists that it must still be demonstrated that the original petitioner had the ability to pay the proffered wage at the time of filing the I-140 petition, but the original petitioner need not continue to show its ability to pay after filing and until the beneficiary obtains permanent residency. This makes sense since once the beneficiary has ported, the original petitioning employer should not be required to demonstrate its continued ability to pay the proffered wage after the filing of the I-140 petition and once the 180 days since the filing of the I-485 have passed.

Unfortunately, Matter of V-S-G- and the accompanying guidance fail to instruct USCIS on how to notify beneficiaries when the I-140 has not yet been approved, but the beneficiary has exercised portability under INA 204(j). Pursuant to Matter of V-S-G, the beneficiary has a legitimate interest in an unadjudicated I-140 too, and must be notified through a Request for Evidence (RFE) that is usually only sent to the employer.  Accordingly, beneficiaries who have ported off an unadjudicated I-140 must insist on being notified regarding any RFE that may be sent to the employer and to be given the opportunity to respond to the RFE. If the relationship has not become antagonistic, the original employer may still respond to the RFE, even if the employer does not intend to employ the beneficiary upon acquiring permanent residency, and notify the USCIS that the beneficiary has or may be porting under 204(j) but is seeing to have the I-140 approved pursuant to 8 CFR 245.25(a)(2)(ii)(B). If the original employer has decided to not respond to the RFE, the USCIS must still give the beneficiary an opportunity to respond to the RFE in the same was as it has been instructed to do under Matter of  V-S-G- with regards to an NOIR of an approved I-140 petition.

Beneficiaries have not been provided the same rights as employers in the I-140 petitioning process. Matter of V-S-G- following court decisions now recognize that an AC 21 beneficiary must be given an opportunity to be heard when the approved I-140 petition is in jeopardy. At the same time, the guidance accompanying Matter of V-S-G- could also incentivize USCIS officers to issue more NOIRs of approved I-140 petitions, although such notices would have to be provided to the original petitioner and to the beneficiary. While this is a significant first step, beneficiaries of employer-filed petitions must continue to advance their legitimate right to be heard even in other contexts, such as when the I-140 is still not yet approved or even when there is no pending I-485 application under INA 204(j).

 

Who Should Get Notice When An I-140 Petition Is Revoked? It’s The Worker, Stupid!

The ability for a foreign national worker to move to a new job is crucial in an age of never ending backlogs in the employment-based (EB) immigrant visa preferences. If an I-485 application for adjustment of status has been filed and been pending for more than 180 days, under INA 204(j), the I-140 immigrant visa petition shall remain valid with respect to a new job if it is in the same or a similar occupational classification as the job for which the petition was filed. This means that so long as the worker “ports” to a same or similar job, the validity of the underlying labor certification and the I-140 petition is kept intact. The new employer is not required to restart the green card process on behalf of this worker who is the beneficiary of the approved I-140 petition filed by the former employer.

There are many who filed I-485 applications when the July 2007 visa bulletin was current, and then retrogressed, who are still waiting in the never ending EB-3 India backlog. For them, 204(j) job portability is a great blessing, although it can also have pitfalls. If the USCIS chooses to revoke the already approved I-140 petition because it suspects that the employer committed fraud, but the worker has now moved onto a new job, who should get notice o the USCIS’s intent to revoke?

Courts seem to be agreeing that the original employer should not be the exclusive party receiving notice when the worker has ported to a new employer. The original employer no longer has any stake in the process and may also be antagonistic toward the beneficiary of the I-140 petition who has already left the employment many years ago. The beneficiary in addition to porting off the I-140 petition provided the adjustment application has been pending for 180 or more days, can also recapture the priority date of the original I-140 and apply it to a new I-140 petition filed by the new employer. Thus, a worker who was sponsored by the original employer in the EB-3 can potentially re-boot into EB-2 through a new employer, and recapture the priority date applicable to the original I-140 petition. While the EB-2 may also be backlogged for India, it is not as dire as the EB-3. If the USCIS chooses to revoke the original I-140 petition, not only will the I-495 adjustment application be in jeopardy, but also the recaptured priority date, thus setting back the foreign worker by many years in the EB-3 green card backlog. It is thus imperative that someone other than the original employer get notification of the I-140 petition who will have no interest in challenging it, and may have also possibly gone out of business.

These were indeed the facts in the recent Seventh Circuit decision of Musunuru v. Lynch. Like the Second Circuit in Mantena v. Johnson, the Seventh Circuit agreed that the original employer should not be getting notice of the revocation despite the government asserting that under 8 CFR 103.3(a)(1)(iii)(B) only the petitioner is considered an “affected party.” While in Mantena, the Second Circuit left open whether the new employer or the beneficiary of the I-140 petition should get notice,  the Seventh circuit in Musunuru quite adamantly held that the beneficiary’s current employer should get notice of the revocation. This is what the Seventh Circuit in Musunuru stated:

We so hold because Congress intends for a nonimmigrant worker’s new employer to adopt the visa petition filed by his old employer when the worker changes employers under the statutory portability provision. Thus, to give effect to Congress’s intention, the new employer must be treated as the de facto petitioner for the old employer’s visa petition. As the de facto petitioner, the new employer is entitled under the regulations to pre-revocation notice and an opportunity to respond, as well as to administratively challenge a revocation decision.

While the Seventh Circuit is yet one more court that has held that the original employer is not exclusively entitled to notice of the revocation, it is disappointing that the court insisted that the new employer must be treated as a de facto petitioner. There is nothing in INA 204(j) that makes the new employer the de facto petitioner. Once the foreign national worker ports under INA 204(j), the pending green card process ought to belong to him or her. The whole idea of providing job mobility to workers caught in the EB backlog is to allow them to easily find a new employer in a same or similar field, on the strength of an employment authorization document (EAD) ensuing from the pending I-485 application, and not to oblige the new employer to adopt the old petition. This could potentially pose an obstacle to much needed job mobility for the beleaguered EB worker who is trapped in the backlog.

While the USICS has yet to promulgate a rule implementing INA 204(j), the current policy of the USCIS is to transfer ownership of the pending green card application to the foreign worker who can demonstrate that s/he has moved to a job in a same or similar occupational classification under INA 204(j). Indeed, according to USCIS policy, such a worker can also port to self-employment. The most recent USCIS guidance on 204(j) portability in footnote 4 confirms long standing USCIS policy that allows a foreign worker to move to self-employment:

An alien may port to self -employment under section 204(j) of the INA as long as all eligibility requirements are satisfied. First, as with all other portability determinations, the employment must be in a “same or similar” occupational classification as the job for which the original I-140 petition was filed. Second, the adjustment applicant should provide sufficient evidence to confirm that the new employer and the job offer are legitimate. Third, as with any portability case, USCIS will focus on whether the I-140 petition represented the truly intended employment at the time of the filing of both the I-140 and the I-485. This means that, as of the time of the filing of the I-140 and at the time of filing the I-485 if not filed concurrently, the I-140 petitioner must have had the intent to employ the beneficiary, and the alien must also have intended to undertake the employment, upon adjustment. Adjudicators should not presume absence of such intent and may take the I-140 petition and supporting documents themselves as evidence of such intent, but in certain cases additional evidence or investigation may be appropriate. See Memorandum of Michael Aytes, Acting Director of Domestic Operations, USCIS, “Interim Guidance for Processing I-140 Employment-Based Immigrant Petitions and I-485 and H-1B Petitions Affected by the American Competitiveness in the Twenty -first Century Act of 2000 (AC21) (Public Law 106-313)” (Dec.27, 2005).

The holding in Musunuru does not square with USCIS policy that allows a worker to be self-employed under INA 204(j). In the context of self-employment, the worker can set up his or own company, but may also exercise 204(j) portability as a sole proprietor. Under these circumstances, there may not be a separate employer who has become the de facto new petitioner, unless the USCIS recognizes under these circumstances that the worker is the de facto petitioner. The Seventh Circuit’s holding is also not in line with the Sixth and the Eleventh Circuits. In 2014, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in  Kurupati v. USCIS held that a foreign national had standing notwithstanding the USCIS rule in 8 CFR 103.3(a)(1)(iii)(B) that precluded the beneficiary from challenging the revocation of an I-140.  The Kurupati court observed that the foreign national was clearly harmed as the revocation of the I-140 petition resulted in the denial of the I-485 adjustment application. The Court further observed that the notion of prudential standing, where a court may disregard standing based on prudence,  has been discredited by the Supreme Court in Lexmark International Inc. v. Static Control Components, which held that the correct question to ask is whether the plaintiffs “fall within the class of plaintiffs whom Congress has authorized to sue.” The Eleventh Circuit in Kurupati closely followed an earlier 2013 decision of the Sixth Circuit in Patel v. USCIS by holding that the beneficiary of an I-140 petition had standing because he or she suffered injury that was traceable to the USICS, namely, the loss of an opportunity to become a permanent resident. INA 203(b) makes the visa available directly to the immigrant, and not the employer, which suggests that Congress gave the beneficiary a stake in the outcome of the I-140. Moreover, after an I-140 is approved, the beneficiary can apply for permanent residency rather than a temporary status based on the employer’s need for the beneficiary’s services. Additionally, Congress also enacted INA 204(j) that allows the beneficiary to change jobs without starting the whole I-140 process all over again. Thus, under the question raised in Lexmark, Congress has authorized the beneficiary to challenge the denial of an I-140 petition, and thus this individual has standing without taking into consideration whether a court has discretion to allow it. This reasoning is further bolstered by INA 204(j), where the employer derives no further benefit from the employee’s benefit to port to a new employer.

Even older decisions have recognized standing for the beneficiary in a labor certification application. In Ramirez v. Reich,  the DC Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the beneficiary’s standing to sue, but then denied the appeal since the employer’s participation in the appeal of a labor certification denial was essential. While the holding in Ramirez was contradictory,  it recognized the standing of the worker to seek review of the denial of a labor certification.  An even older case, Gladysz v. Donovan,  provided further basis for worker standing regarding a labor certification application. In Gladysz, the worker sought judicial review after the employer’s labor certification had been denied, rather than challenged his inability to seek administrative review under the applicable DOL regulations, and the court agreed that the worker had standing as he was within the zone of interests protected under the Administrative Procedures Act.

The Seventh Circuit decision in Musunuru, while good in principle as it allows someone other than the original petitioner form exclusively getting notification, may create additional burdens on new employers, thus hindering job mobility for backlogged workers. There is a possibility that if the new employer is treated as the de facto I-140 petition, it may have to continue to demonstrate ability to pay the worker, and may be subject to filing a new I-140 petition on behalf of the alien beneficiary. All this would run counter to the spirit and intention behind INA 204(j), which is clearly alien centric in nature and focuses on the ability of the foreign worker to exercise job mobility, and for the worker to demonstrate that he or she has sought a new job in an occupational classification that is same or similar to the one that was the subject of the I-140 petition. Already in the proposed rule, Retention of EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 Immigrant Workers and Program Improvements Affecting High Skilled Nonimmigrant Workers, there is an unnecessary imposition on the new employer at new 8 CFR 245.25(b)(12)(i) and (ii) when the worker exercises 204(j) portability. The proposed rule requires the new employer to sign a written attestation describing the new employment offer, stating that the employer intends the applicant to commence employment within a reasonable period upon adjustment of status, and that the employment offer and the employment offer under the approved petition are in the same occupational classification.

This imposition on the new employer is quite unnecessary as it is the foreign worker who has been making the 204(j) case till now, supported by a new job offer letter from the new employer. The new employer is not required to make a 204(j) argument on behalf of the worker. Still, the new employer is not recognized as the de facto petitioner in the proposed rule. The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Musunuru may change this, and possibly incentivize USCIS to impose further burdens on the de facto petitioner such as demonstrating the new employer’s financial ability to pay the proffered wage. It is thus important to ensure that other courts do not follow the precise holding of Musunuru, and insist that the worker as the beneficiary of the I-140 petition be primarily entitled to notification. As advocated in a prior blog, the proposed rule must include that the beneficiary of an I-140 petition has the right to receive and respond to any notice regarding potential revocation of the I-140 petition. The rule must specify that it is the beneficiary who should have this right, and not the new employer as the de facto petitioner. Such a regulatory change would once and for all settle the matter in favor of the worker who ought to be able to exercise job mobility unfettered under INA 204(j).

The Opportunity to Be Heard: Why New DHS Proposed Regulations Regarding I-140 Petitions Should Incorporate and Expand Upon the Rule of Mantena v. Johnson

As discussed in a previous post on this blog by Cyrus D. Mehta, DHS recently promulgated a proposed rule entitled “Retention of EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 Immigrant Workers and Program Improvements Affecting High Skilled Nonimmigrant Workers”. One of the key aspects of this proposed rule, which as discussed in Cyrus’s blog post has disappointed many with its narrowness in various respects, relates to the status of I-140 petitions which a petitioning employer may cease to support. For the reasons I will explain, this aspect of the proposed rule, too, does not go far enough.

The proposed rule will make clear through amendments to 8 CFR 204.5(e)(2) that an I-140 petition will continue to confer a priority date unless it is revoked because of fraud or willful misrepresentation, invalidation or revocation of the underlying labor certification, or “A determination by USCIS that petition approval was in error”, as proposed 8 CFR 204.5(e)(2)(iv) states. Even an I-140 petition that is withdrawn, for example, would continue to confer its priority date on all subsequent petitions filed for that beneficiary. In addition, withdrawal of the I-140 petition by the petitioning employer, or termination of the employer’s business, would only lead to revocation of the petition, per proposed 8 CFR 205.1(a)(3)(iii)(C) and (D), if such withdrawal or termination were to occur less than 180 days after approval of the I-140 petition. Otherwise, in the face of a withdrawal or termination of the employer’s business after those 180 days had passed, the petition would remain valid indefinitely. Thus, even a petition which an employer tries to withdraw after 180 days have passed could, under the proposed rule, be used as the basis for portability under INA §204(j) as enacted by the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (“AC21”), which, as discussed in numerous previous posts on this blog, provides the ability to proceed with employment-based adjustment based on a different job offer to that which underlay the I-140 so long as it is in a same or similar occupation and the adjustment application has been pending for 180 days.

While these provisions provide some insurance against a petitioning employer deliberately or inadvertently undermining §204(j) portability, however, they do not go far enough to accomplish that aim. It appears from the proposed rule that in making its determination whether “petition approval was in error”, to quote again from proposed 8 CFR 204.5(e)(2)(iv), and so should no longer confer a priority date, USCIS would look to the I-140 petitioner for further information, even though that petitioner might lack any interest in providing it. Similarly, the rules regarding revocation of an I-140 petition on notice have not been changed by the proposed rule, and presumably would again involve notice to the petitioner. A hostile petitioner who would have wished to withdraw a petition, or a petitioner which had innocently gone out of business, could give rise to a revocation by failing to respond to notice from USCIS, and in so doing undermine the exercise of §204(j) portability.

This is not merely a theoretical concern. A recent precedential opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Mantena v. Johnson, 809 F.3d 721 (2d Cir. 2015), published on December 30, 2015, demonstrates how this problem can arise under the current regulations.

The plaintiff in Mantena had been the beneficiary of an I-140 petition filed by Vision Systems Group (VSG). Roughly two years after filing her I-485 application for adjustment of status in July 2007, she sent a letter to USCIS requesting to exercise portability and substitute as a successor employer CNC Consulting, Inc. Nearly a year after that, the president of VSG pled guilty to mail fraud in connection with a different petition, which led USCIS to believe that all VSG petitions might be fraudulent. USCIS therefore sent Notices of Intent to Revoke (NOIRs) regarding, it appears, many or all VSG I-140 petitions, including Mantena’s. The NOIR for Mantena’s petition went unanswered – possibly because Mantena had, at that point, not worked for VSG in three years – so USCIS revoked the I-140 petition and then denied Mantena’s I-485.

Following repeated attempts to resolve the issue by filing motions, Mantena brought a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming that the revocation of the I-140 petition and subsequent denial of her I-485 had violated the relevant regulations and deprived her of constitutionally protected due process rights. The district court ruled against her, but on appeal the Second Circuit ruled that USCIS had been required to notify either Mantena, or possibly her successor employer CNC, of the NOIR.

Under the INA as amended by AC21, the Second Circuit found, USCIS could not, when it was contemplating revocation of an I-140, notify only the former employer of an I-140 beneficiary who had already exercised portability to leave that employer. As the Second Circuit found,

By placing beneficiaries and successor employers in a position of either blind faith in the original petitioner’s goodwill and due diligence or a forced and continued relationship with the now-disinterested and perhaps antagonistic original petitioner, such a scheme would completely undermine the aims of job flexibility that those amendments sought to create.

Mantena, slip op. at 28-29. The Second Circuit in Mantena remanded to the district court for further consideration of whether the required notice should have gone to Mantena, CNC as her successor employer, or both, but held that in any event some such additional notice was required.

Mantena is not the first case to confront this sort of fact pattern. As discussed by Cyrus D. Mehta in his October 2015 post on this blog, “Don’t You Dare Yank My Precious I-140 Petition Without Telling Me!”, similar facts have been the subject of appellate decisions in the Ninth Circuit, Sixth Circuit, and Eleventh Circuit, as well as an ongoing appeal in the Seventh Circuit. The Second Circuit’s decision in Mantena does a particularly good job, however, of explaining why additional notice of proposed revocation of an I-140 petition is required.

USCIS has the opportunity, in the final revisions to its proposed rule, to clarify and expand upon this holding of Mantena. The final amended regulations should provide that when an I-140 petition has been approved for more than 180 days, or an I-485 based on an I-140 petition has been pending for more than 180 days, the beneficiary of the I-140 petition has the right to receive and respond to any notice regarding potential revocation of the I-140 petition. This will safeguard the job flexibility interests which, as the Second Circuit noted, the AC21 permanent portability provisions were designed to secure in the first place. And it will do so without unduly burdening successor employers, who may be willing only to hire their new employee but not to become too deeply enmeshed in the immigration paperwork and respond to notice regarding an I-140 petition.

Without the addition of Mantena’s rule, the current proposed regulations would leave I-140 beneficiaries “in a position of either blind faith in the original petitioner’s goodwill and due diligence or a forced and continued relationship with the now-disinterested and perhaps antagonistic original petitioner,” Mantena, slip op. at 28-29. A petitioner who is no longer interested, may no longer be in business, or may actively wish harm to the I-140 beneficiary, could quite likely fail to respond to an NOIR, leaving USCIS with the mistaken impression that a petition has been approved in error. This would, in those cases, destroy the benefits of stability that the proposed rule’s changes to 8 CFR 204.5(e)(2) and 8 CFR 205.1(a)(3)(iii)(C) and (D) are intended to produce.

Of course, as Mantena itself held, this sort of notice may in fact be mandated by the statute, whether USCIS explicitly mentions it in the regulations or not. But it would be much more efficient for USCIS to incorporate this notice into the express terms of the regulations, rather than leaving the details to the vagaries of case-by-case litigation in different circuits.

USCIS has, in the past, sometimes acquiesced by memorandum in the employment-immigration-related holding of a Court of Appeals. In a July 15, 2015, memorandum, for example, USCIS accepted the decision of the Third Circuit in Shalom Pentecostal Church v. Acting Secretary of DHS striking down regulatory provisions that required qualifying experience for an I-360 religious worker petition to have been gained in “lawful status”, which the Third Circuit had found to be ultra vires the statute. USCIS could take a similar route with regard to Mantena, which would be much better than nothing. But especially given that regulations on a related topic are being promulgated anyway, the best solution would be for a Mantena-style requirement of notice to an I-140 beneficiary to be incorporated into those new regulations.

As the Supreme Court has explained, “The fundamental requisite of due process of law is the opportunity to be heard.” Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 267 (1970) (quoting Grannis v. Ordean, 234 U.S. 385, 394 (1914)). USCIS should amend the new proposed I-140 rules to provide this opportunity to I-140 beneficiaries.

The Proposed USCIS Guidance on Job Portability: Good, Bad or Ugly?

INA  204(j)  was enacted on October 6,  2000 as part of the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (AC 21). This provision is rather innovative as it allows for the beneficiary of an approved I-140 immigrant visa petition to exercise portability to a same or similar job if an I-485 adjustment application has been pending for more than 180 days. The purpose behind INA 204(j) is to provide job flexibility to foreign national workers when there have been delays in processing an application for permanent residency.

The actual verbiage in INA 204(j) for the benefit of readers is as follows:

A petition under subsection (a)(1)(D) [redesignated as (a)(1)(F)] for an individual whose application for adjustment of status pursuant to section 245 has been filed and remained unadjudicated for 180 days or more shall remain valid with respect to a new job if the individual changes jobs or employers if the new job is in the same or a similar occupational classification as the job for which the petition was filed.

While Congress had contemplated a delay of 180 days as being intolerable, the delays can be far worse. For instance, one can file an I-485 application when the priority date becomes current, and then it may retrogress, resulting in the I-485 application remaining pending for years. A case in point is when applicants filed I-485 adjustment applications under the July 2007 visa bulletin, when it was current, and many under the India employment –based third preference are still pending after the dates retrogressed the following month in August 2007. With the new innovation in the  Visa Bulletin starting October 2015 – resulting in a filing date and final action date – there will also likely be longer than 180 day waits after an I-485 application has been filed pursuant to a current filing date.

Given that 204(j) was created to promote job mobility for workers who would otherwise be stuck in the same job without any career progression, it is important that the USCIS broadly interpret   whether “the new job is in the same or a similar occupational classification as the job for which the petition was filed.” If the conditions of 204(j) are met, the labor certification and I-140 petition filed by the prior employer remain intact, and the worker can port and obtain the green card through a new job, provided it is same or similar to the one that was the subject of the labor certification and I-140 petition. INA 204(j) promotes job flexibility either with a new job through another employer or a different job with the same employer.

This is why the proposed guidance memo from the USCIS issued on November 20, 2015 has received so much attention. Once this guidance memo is finalized, and the public has until January 4, 2016, to comment, will the memo spoil the party or would it make it easier for foreign national employees with pending I-485 applications? Till now, at least in this author’s experience with respect to meritorious cases and based on anecdotal information from other attorneys, it has generally been possible to make a winning argument that the job is same or similar without the need for a guidance memo, based on the plain language of 204(j). At the same time, many have been hesitant to change jobs due to the risk of the USCIS not accepting that they have moved to similar employment without proper guidance. The proposed guidance is not yet final, and there is scope to improve it so that workers can avail of optimum job mobility as Congress intended when enacting INA 204(j).

The proposed guidance first attempts to divine the plain language meaning of same or similar. With respect to the meaning of  “same,” there should be little difference in opinion. The two jobs have to be “identical”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary or “resembling in every relevant respect”, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Divining the plain meaning of “similar” becomes more contentious. The proposed guidance indicates that it could mean “alike in substance or essential, ” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary or it could mean “having a marked resemblance or likeness”, according to the Oxford English Degree. The proposed guidance then selects the Oxford English Dictionary definition and pronounces that “similar” under 204(j) means “having a marked resemblance or likeness.” But there are other definitions of “similar” that are broader than the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition. For example, this author’s version of the Oxford American Dictionary includes one definition of “similar” as “resembling something but not the same.” Why does USCIS choose only one definition over all others? “Resembling something but not the same” provides more flexibility than “having a marked resemblance or likeness.” A Google search for the definition of “similar” reveals  “resembling without being identical.” Even this is a better definition to  “having a marked resemblance or likeness” which is what the USCIS has selected for its proposed guidance. Rather than for the USCIS to select one definition of “similar” to others,  it ought to allow applicants exercising portability to establish the definition of “similar” through any credible dictionary source.

The proposed guidance also slavishly adheres to the DOL’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes. It is true that INA 204(j) requires that the job be in “the same or a similar occupational classification,” but that does not mean that Congress said it must be the DOL’s SOC.  While the proposed memo also guides USCIS adjudicators to view other evidence, and properly reminds them to use the preponderance of evidence standard, there is a risk that a USCIS adjudicator may rely exclusively on the SOC codes of the occupation that was subject to the employer’s sponsorship and the new occupation. Too much reliance on the SOC codes is problematic as it can lead to  excessive rigidity, thus undermining an adjudicator’s ability to provide flexibility to the applicant, which is what is intended in 204(j) . In an employer sponsored green card process involving labor certification, the DOL is notorious for not assigning a correct code. Note also that the SOC does not cover every occupation under the sun. The SOC is a successor to the now obsolete Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), which covered many more occupations. The DOL has a tendency to assign an SOC with the objective of forcing the employer to pay the higher wage, and the duties described under an SOC occupation need not exactly match the duties of the actual position.  For example, if an employer requests a prevailing wage determination and suggests the SOC code of 19-1042.00 corresponding with “Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists” , the DOL may instead assign “Natural Sciences Managers” corresponding to SOC code 11-9121. This may be the case even though the position primarily involves research in a distinct scientific field, with some coordination in planning the research with other colleagues in the research laboratory. While Clinical Research Coordinator (SOC Code 11-9121) may be a better match to such a position than Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists,” there is no available wage date for that position, and so this specific SOC code cannot be assigned to the employer at least for purposes of determining the prevailing wage. It is time consuming for an employer to challenge the DOL’s SOC code for the occupation, which normally requires the employer to take an appeal to BALCA and hope for reversal, which it did on the same facts in Matter of General Anesthesia Specialists Partnership Medical Group, 2013-PWD-0005 (Jan. 18, 2014).  However, most employers are unwilling to appeal and take the SOC code that the DOL assigns.

Now imagine after a few years, the beneficiary of the approved labor certification wishes to port to a similar job under INA 204(j). The duties of the actual position have primarily involved research rather than managerial duties ascribed to  “Natural Sciences Managers” in the SOC. There is some risk that the new occupation, if it is research oriented and applicable only to scientists,  may according to a USCIS adjudicator, not comport with “Natural Sciences Managers,” which was wrongly assigned to the position in the first instance. “Natural Science Managers” involve managerial duties of a non-scientific nature, and the duties do not necessarily involve front line scientific research. There is also a chance that the DOL may find that the occupation involves a combination of duties, and may assign the SOC code for the occupation with the higher wage. Thus , in Matter of Emory University, 2011-PWD-00001 (Feb. 27, 1012), while the employer who was sponsoring a foreign national for  the position of “Supervisor, Clinical Genetics Laboratory” selected “Geneticist” corresponding with SOC code 19-1029, the DOL thought that since the occupation involved a combination of duties involving scientific research and coordination, it assigned “Natural Sciences Managers”. If this individual now ports to a position that involves front line research in genetics, again there is a risk that the  “same or similar” argument under INA 204(j) may not be accepted if he or she is not going to be taking up a position involving managerial duties under  “Natural Sciences Manager.” There are other problems in emphasizing the SOC code. Some occupations are emerging and may not even have SOC codes. Those stuck in the backlogs, if Congress does not expand the supply of immigrant visas, may not be able to receive green cards for several years, as we have seen with the “Class of 2007” pending adjustment applications. New occupations in the future might receive different SOC codes that do not conform to the major group or minor group occupations.

The proposed guidance explains how the SOC works by providing the example of “web developer” that corresponds with SOC code 15-1134. The first two digits “15” is the major group classification, which includes all computer and mathematical occupations and corresponds with 15-0000. The third digit “1” indicates the minor group, which is all computer occupations and corresponds with 15-1100. The fourth and fifth digits “13” indicate the broad occupation, namely, software developers and programmers, which corresponds with 15-1130. The sixth digit “4” indicates the detailed occupation, which corresponds with 15-1134 – Web Developers. The proposed guidance then states that if the entire six digits match between the original position and the new position, then such positions will be treated favorably. The proposed guidance also states that if there is a different occupational code between the same broad occupations, denoting “13”,  then it will generally be considered same or similar under 204(j). Examples of different codes within the broad occupations include Computer Programmers (15-1131); Software Developers, Applications (15-1132); Software Developers, Systems Software (15-1133) and Web Developers (15-1134). All of these occupations are found within the broad occupation of Software Developers and Programmers (15-1130). But what if the new job is in a different broad occupation, such as Computer Systems Engineers/Architects, which corresponds with SOC code 15-1199.02?  The fourth and fifth digits are “19” and no longer “13”. Will this throw off the USCIS adjudicator, and will he or she now issue a Request for Evidence?

Fortunately, the proposed memo does contemplate jobs with totally different codes can also be considered same or similar under the preponderance of evidence standard. For instance, the original job would be under 15-0000 for Computer and Mathematical Occupations while the new job may be under 17-0000 for Architecture and Engineering Occupations. Still, the proposed guidance cautions that some occupations under the same broad occupational code may fail the same or similar test. Thus, Geographers (19-3092) and Political Scientists (19-3090), while falling under the broad occupational code for Miscellaneous Social Scientists and Related Workers (19-3090),  may not pass muster under 204(j). The proposed guidance also admirably  takes into account career progression. Thus, a Software Developer (15-1132) may be promoted to a position corresponding with Computer and Information Systems Managers with an SOC Code of 11-3021. The new position would be considered similar to the old position since an Information Systems Manager would supervise Software Developers and other occupations within 15-1130. But what if this individual formed his or her own startup, where  she is now the CEO and spends about 49% of her time in general management functions, such as marketing and obtaining venture capital funding, and the remaining 51% of her time in supervising technical development of a software application. This person should also be able to qualify under the same or similar standard, but Chief Executive corresponds to SOC Code to 11-1011 rather than Computer and Information Systems Managers with an SOC Code of 11-3021. The proposed guidance provides an example of a Restaurant Cook (35-2014) progressing to Food Service Manager (11-9051), and indicates that this career progression may fail under  the “same or similar” test as the Food Service Manager’s duties are different from a Restaurant Cook.  Again, the proposed memo relies on the fact that the SOC classification for Food Service Managers excludes “Chefs and Head Cooks,” even though in reality a Food and Service Manager may supervise cooks. However, the proposed guidance grudgingly concedes that if the applicant can prove that the original duties of a Restaurant Cook included the duties of a Food Service Manager, such as ordering supplies, setting menu prices and planning the daily menu, then it may be considered a normal career progression. This may be difficult for an applicant to establish, and it may be easier for the applicant to establish that a Food Service Manager also supervises the cooks in a restaurant, but the adjudicator may rely on the SOC description, which clearly states that a Food Service Manager excludes Chefs and Head Cooks.

The USCIS guidance ought to give primacy to an evaluation of the job duties, requirements and skills between the two jobs, rather than on the SOC codes, and should also give weight to an applicant’s credible argument that the positions are similar. If the USCIS insists on SOC Codes, they should be used as an aid to facilitate a determination on whether the position is same or similar, rather than insist that the SOC code drives the determination. We already have seen that if the USCIS asks its adjudicators to rely on formulaic governmental classifications, its adjudicators will  likely exclusively rely on them rather than consider an applicant’s plausible arguments in favor of granting the immigration benefit. A good example is the USCIS’s rigid application of the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH)when evaluating whether an H-1B petition is a specialty occupation. If there is any whiff of reference in the OOH that one can qualify for an occupation through a generalized college degree, the USCIS pounces upon that in refusing H-1B classification notwithstanding the employer submitting credible evidence to the contrary that a person can only qualify for the position with a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field.

The proposed guidance also indicates that all prior memos are superseded relating to whether the two positions are in the same or similar occupational classification. “This guidance does not address other procedural requirements of the 204(j) portability determination” according to the proposed guidance. The Memo of Michael Aytes dated December 27, 2005 on AC 21, for example, does provide other useful guidance, which may be superseded, but which is essential to 204(j) portability and which has not been addressed in the proposed guidance.  While those are procedural requirements of the 204(j) portability determination, they are conflated with same or similar guidance, and thus a USCIS adjudicator may disregard the prior guidance. For example, the Aytes Memo correctly indicates that a foreign national can port to self employment, provided the employment is in a “same or similar” occupational classification. The ability for an applicant to port into self employment or to his own startup should be preserved and emphasized in the final guidance, along with other invaluable guidance such as differences in geographical location should not be a basis for denial.

Given the long backlogs in the employment-based preferences, portability provides the only salvation. It may also be deployed  in a proposed rule to provide employment authorization to beneficiaries of approved I-140 petitions (RIN:1615-AC05), and this  may be conditioned on whether they have changed jobs within a same or similar occupation. Although INA 204(j) can only be invoked if there is  a pending I-485 adjustment application, the DHS has authority under INA 247(h)(3) to provide employment authorization to broad groups of non-citizens under conditions that it can fashion, and also has broad discretion to determine whether an I-140 petition can or cannot be revoked under INA 205, and thus DHS can condition the grant of employment authorization, and the retention of the I-140 petition,  based on whether the new job is same or similar to the prior job. Thus, the proposed guidance on INA 204(j) portability could have greater implications.

In conclusion,  it is vitally important that foreign nationals stuck in the employment-based backlogs be provided with broad flexibility to change jobs, and so all stake holders ought to comment on or before January 4, 2016 the defects in the guidance, as suggested in this blog, in order to ensure that the final guidance affords maximum job flexibility to skilled legal immigrants caught in the crushing employment backlogs.

Don’t You Dare Yank My Precious I-140 Petition Without Telling Me!

The approved immigrant visa petition, Form I-140, is truly precious, especially when foreign nationals caught in the employment-based second and third preference backlogs have to wait for several years before they can get their green cards. The beneficiary of an I-140 petition can also “port” to a new employer after an I-485 adjustment of status application has been pending for 180 days. Once the beneficiary has ported and is no longer in contact with the former employer, the USCIS may discover that it improperly approved the I-140 petition and revoke it. Only the prior employer may get notification, which may no longer care to contest the grounds for revoking the I-140 or this employer may no longer even be in existence. The hapless foreign national who is enjoying job mobility under INA 204(j) does not know any better, but this individual may no longer be able to obtain permanent residency.

Should this foreign national beneficiary at least be notified about the I-140 being revoked and allowed to contest it? In 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Herrera v. USCIS  answered in the negative by holding that the government’s authority to revoke an I-140 petition under INA 205 survived portability under INA 204(j). Since Herrera,  progress has been made in favor of the foreign national’s interest in the I-140 petition although it may have been filed by the employer. In 2014, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in  Kurupati v. USCIS held that a foreign national had standing notwithstanding the USCIS rule in 8 CFR 103.3(a)(1)(iii)(B) that precluded the beneficiary from challenging the revocation of an I-140.  The Kurupati court observed that the foreign national was clearly harmed as the revocation of the I-140 petition resulted in the denial of the I-485 adjustment application. The Court further observed that the notion of prudential standing, where a court may disregard standing based on prudence,  has been discredited by the Supreme Court in Lexmark International Inc. v. Static Control Components, which held that the correct question to ask is whether the plaintiffs “fall within the class of plaintiffs whom Congress has authorized to sue.” The Eleventh Circuit in Kurupati closely followed an earlier 2013 decision of the Sixth Circuit in Patel v. USCIS by holding that the beneficiary of an I-140 petition had standing because he or she suffered injury that was traceable to the USICS, namely, the loss of an opportunity to become a permanent resident. INA 203(b) makes the visa available directly to the immigrant, and not the employer, which suggests that Congress gave the beneficiary a stake in the outcome of the I-140. Moreover, after an I-140 is approved, the beneficiary can apply for permanent residency rather than a temporary status based on the employer’s need for the beneficiary’s services. Additionally, Congress also enacted INA 204(j) that allows the beneficiary to change jobs without starting the whole I-140 process all over again. Thus, under the question raised in Lexmark, Congress has authorized the beneficiary to challenge the denial of an I-140 petition, and thus this individual has standing without taking into consideration whether a court has discretion to allow it. This reasoning is further bolstered by INA 204(j), where the employer derives no further benefit from the employee’s benefit to port to a new employer.

Despite Kurupati and Patel, which gave standing to the beneficiary of an I-140 petition to challenge the revocation or denial, a federal district court in Musunuru v. Lynch, 81 F. Supp.3d 721 (2015) held to the contrary, that the beneficiary of an I-140 petition could not challenge the revocation of a prior I-140 as the applicable regulations only authorize the petitioning employer to be provided with notification and to challenge the revocation. The Musunuru Court also opined that unlike a non-citizen who is in removal proceedings and who would suffer a serious loss, and thus a right to be heard, an I-140 revocation does not cause the same loss. Obviously, the court’s reasoning is wrong as the denial of an I-140 petition results in the denial of the I-485 adjustment application, which in turn can place the beneficiary in removal proceedings. Fortunately, Law360 reported that this case is on appeal in the Seventh Circuit, and at oral argument, “Circuit Judge Rovner seemed baffled by the whole case, however, saying it doesn’t appear that Musunuru did anything wrong but was being punished for someone else’s mistakes.”

The prospect of the DHS promulgating a rule that would allow beneficiaries of an approved I-140 to apply for work authorization although they are not yet able to file I-1-485 applications should not diminish the beneficiary’s standing in case the I-140 is revoked. First, USCIS has authority under INA 274(a)(h)(3) to issue work authorization to any class of non-citizens.  While an I-140 petition anchored by an I-485 would strengthen the standing claim, there are old decisions that provided standing to the beneficiary of a labor certification, in the absence of a subsequent I-140 petition or an I-485 adjustment of status application. In Ramirez v. Reich,  the DC Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the non-citizen’s standing to sue, but then denied the appeal since the employer’s participation in the appeal of a labor certification denial was essential. While the holding in Ramirezwas contradictory, as it recognized the standing of the non-citizen but turned down the appeal due to the lack of participation of the employer,  the employer’s essentiality is obviated if the non-citizen is allowed to detach from the sponsoring employer under a rule granting work authorization  that replicates 204(j) portability, notwithstanding the lack of an I-485 application. Still, an even older 1984 case, Gladysz v. Donovan provides further  basis for non-citizen standing even if there is no pending I-485 application. In Gladysz, the non-citizen sought judicial review after the employer’s labor certification had been denied, rather than challenged his ability to seek administrative review, and the court agreed that the plaintiff had standing as he was within the zone of interests protected under the Administrative Procedures Act.

As courts are recognizing the non-citizen’s interest in an I-140, employers may want to think twice before withdrawing an already approved I-140 petition even after the employee has left. Unlike an H-1B petition, there is no sanction for the employer who does not withdraw the I-140 petition. The I-140 petition allows the non-citizen to seek an H-1B extension through another employer beyond the maximum sixth year under the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act. It also allows the priority date on that I-140 petition to be transferred to a subsequently filed petition, and provides a measure of protection for one who wishes to port under INA 204(j). Courts have also recognized that the I-140 petition enables the beneficiary to seek benefits independent of the employer who sponsored him or her, and thus providing greater rights to the foreign national beneficiary in the I-140 is a step in the right direction, especially when backlogs in the employment preferences have resulted in longer and longer waits for the coveted green card.