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Dealing With The Dreaded RFE – Reflections Of An Immigration Lawyer

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

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

The following extract from the Reuters article is worth reproducing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 You can continue to read the entire article here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A).

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sweet Smell of Success: H-1B Visas for Entrepreneurs

By Gary Endelman and Cyrus D. Mehta

The title of this blog may seem odd as the H-1B visa is usually associated with an employee who earns a regular wage at the prevailing rate. Yet, entrepreneurs may benefit from the H-1B. Since the USCIS recently set up an Entrepreneur Pathways Portal inviting entrepreneurs to use existing nonimmigrant visas, including the H-1B visa, an analysis on how the H-1B visa can be legitimately exploited by entrepreneurs is worthy of further  exploration.

At the outset, it is worth noting that law is neither applied nor interpreted in a vacuum but is suffused with the attitudes and assumptions of the adjudicator. The same is true here. What does the USCIS want to achieve through its new embrace of foreign entrepreneurs? What is its end goal? Does it accept the legitimacy of the H-1B and does it believe that its proper application or deployment will be in the national interest? Unless we know these things first, no formula or set of legal guidelines can result in a proper, informed decision.  In the end, unless and until the moral and ethical legitimacy of employment based immigration is both embraced and appreciated, there will not be the intellectual flexibility necessary to help entrepreneurs reach their dreams.

Last week’s blog summarized the nonimmigrant options for entrepreneurs suggested in Entrepreneur Pathways, and it also speculated whether this new welcoming embrace of foreign entrepreneurs may possibly change the “Culture of No” within USCIS, whose officials generally places a small business under a fraud profile. A startup may be even more rudimentary than an established small business and thus more susceptible to being viewed as a fraudulent artifice. Startups may not yet be generating a revenue stream as they are developing new technologies that may lead to products and services later on. Many have received financing through venture capital, angel investors or through “Series A and B” rounds of shares. Startups may also operate in more informal spaces, such as the residences of the founders (with regular meetings at Starbucks) instead of a commercial premise. Some are also operating in “stealth mode” so as not to attract the attention of competitors and may not display the usual bells and whistles such as a website or other marketing material. Startups may also not have payroll records since founders may be compensated in stock options. Still, such startups are legitimate companies that should be able to support H-1B, L, O or other visa statuses. While, in the past, USCIS has often been accused by critics of harboring a systemic bias against small business, Entrepreneur Pathways holds out the promise of a new and more welcoming attitude. The degree to which this flexibility will operate in practice will depend, in large measure, on the extent to which emerging companies and inventive business strategists press their case for immigration benefits.

Regarding the H-1B visa, it is true that 8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(ii) requires the existence of an employer-employee relationship, which includes the employer’s ability to “hire, pay, fire, supervise, or otherwise control the work of such employee.” Can the startup owner be able to sponsor himself or herself on an H-1B through the startup? The USCIS portal is surprisingly receptive, but still limited by the rigid methodology and narrow assumptions of the Neufeld Memo that elevates the right of control over all the other factors set forth in the regulation, such as the right to hire, pay, fire or supervise the employee. Still, the USCIS suggests that a startup may be able to demonstrate this if the ownership and control of the company are different. This can be shown through a “board of directors, preferred shareholders, investors, or other factors that the organization has the right to control the terms and conditions of the beneficiary’s employment (such as the right to hire, fire, pay, supervise or otherwise control the terms and conditions of employment).” Some of the suggested evidence could include a term sheet, capitalization table, stock purchase agreement, investor rights agreement, voting agreement or organization documents and operating agreements. Not only can observance of corporate formalities serve legitimate business interests and avoid the “piercing of the corporate veil”, by providing the patina of control over individual initiative they may also serve to convey immigration benefits.

The ethos of any new business idea is change, an unwillingness to sacrifice creativity and growth on the alter of certainty.  It is the preference for certainty, however, most notably reflected in the Neufeld Memo that  may make it difficult for the 100% owner of a startup to successfully obtain an H-1B visa. If the beneficiary has not only conceptualized the business, but also invested only her own capital, it will be difficult for her to have a board of directors that can have the ability to discipline or fire her. Indeed, noted attorney David Ware asks a good question: “What entrepreneur in his or her right mind is going to invest blood, sweat and tears, not to mention money, in an entity holding this power?”  If we expect the entrepreneur to take a chance, must not the USCIS itself accept some measure of risk?  Concern over fraud, while totally legitimate, must be balanced against no less compelling concerns for allowing the honest expression of commercial imagination.

Although Mr. Ware’s point is well taken, we caution against being completely dismissive of the USCIS effort to welcome entrepreneurs, especially the H-1B visa, which one can have more access to over other visas such as the O-1, E-2 or L-1A. The agile practitioner should invoke old decisions that recognize the separate existence of the corporate entity. It is well established that a corporation is a separate and distinct legal entity from its owners and stockholders. See Matter of M, 8 I&N Dec. 24, 50 (BIA 1958, AG 1958); Matter of Aphrodite Investments Limited, 17 I&N Dec. 530 (Comm.1980); and Matter of Tessel, 17 I&N Dec. 631 (Act. Assoc. Comm. 1980).  As such, a corporation, even if it is owned and operated by a single person, may hire that person, and the parties will be in an employer-employee relationship. This point needs to be brought out when advancing an H-1B for an entrepreneur. Still, we acknowledge that the H-1B petition may have more success when there is another investor or shareholder, and the beneficiary is not the sole owner of the entity. That person may be able to exercise control over the H-1B beneficiary, even if he or she has a minority interest. It may not be necessary to show that the other individual or entity has the power to discipline the beneficiary, but only that this person can exercise negative control over the beneficiary’s decisions. There is nothing preventing the other individual from being a family member, and the shareholder or director also need not be residing in the US.

There are other difficulties for an H-1B entrepreneur that may be beyond the USCIS’s control. Every H-1B petition must be accompanied by a certified Labor Condition Application from the DOL. Under an LCA, the employer attests that it must pay the beneficiary the higher of the prevailing or actual wage, and must also do so on a regular prorated basis. In a startup, there may be no revenue stream to pay the entrepreneur initially. Thus, unless the startup is sufficiently capitalized through venture capital or other forms of financing that can ensure a steady stream of income to the H-1B beneficiary at the required wage, the petitioning entity may be in violation of the DOL rules if it cannot guarantee a regular prevailing wage.

Also, a DOL rule at 20 CFR § 655.731(c)(9)(iii)(C) states that any attorney fees paid by the H-1B beneficiary will be viewed as a lowering of the required wage that the employer is required to pay the beneficiary. There is also a prohibition of the employee paying the training fee of $750 or $1,500. In the case of a startup, where the H-1B beneficiary has invested his own money into the enterprise, the fact that the petitioning entity makes these payments ought not to be viewed as a violation of the DOL rules regarding impermissible payments. Since it is the entity that is making these payments, which is considered separate from the beneficiary, and which also controls the beneficiary, it should not be viewed as impermissible. Otherwise, there is no way that the USCIS can promote the H-1B to entrepreneurs.

Even if an H-1B founder of a company successfully establishes that the entity can control her employment through a board of directors or through preferred shareholders, the USCIS could likely challenge whether a position in a startup, where the beneficiary may be wearing many hats, can support a specialized position. The H-1B visa law requires the petitioner to demonstrate that a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field is the minimum qualification for entry into that occupation. Also, positions in innovative startups may not necessarily fit under the occupations listed in the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbookbut may yet require at least a bachelor’s degree. It is hoped that USCIS examiners are trained to be receptive to other evidence to demonstrate that the position requires a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, an MBA degree should be considered a specialized degree in itself since many MBA programs at top business schools focus on entrepreneurship and other fields, such as technology or web analytics, which equip one to be a successful entrepreneur. The very notion of specialized occupations has and will continue to change as the pervasive impact of technology in the Internet Age makes itself felt at all levels of economic activity.

While there are insurmountable hurdles for H-1B entrepreneurs, it is hoped that the USCIS will make every effort for the program to work for them. The H-1B is the most accessible visa to a foreign student as the E-2 visa only applies to nationals of limited countriesthat have a treaty with the US, and none of the BRIC countries have such treaties. Very few entrepreneurs can qualify as extraordinary under the O-1 and the L-1A visa would only apply to an individual who has been employed overseas for one year in the past three years in an entity that has a parent, subsidiary, affiliate or branch in the US. It also raises a larger question: How can we use US immigration policy not merely to preserve the status quo but actually create wealth and jobs? For it to work successful, USCIS officials have to examine and approve cases consistent with this objective. The problem goes beyond the “Culture of No.” The USCIS should think of immigration in a strategic sense as a mechanism to create wealth and expand the economy. Presently, USCIS thinks in static terms so naturally the focus is on protecting what now is and judging people not by their potential but by their documented accomplishments. USCIS, on the other hand, should think like an entrepreneur so as to avoid a dissonance or disconnect between the regulators and those whom they regulate. The USCIS Entrepreneur in Residence program, from which the Entrepreneur Pathways portal has ensued, appears to be a step in the right direction. Only time will tell whether it will truly serve the needs of entrepreneurs. The willingness of the entrepreneur to take risks must be matched in full measure by an immigration system that also embraces the value of innovation. As T.S Elliot famously reminded us: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”

New Portal Welcomes Entrepreneurs to the USA: But Will this Change the Culture of “No” at USCIS

Consistent with its earlier policy of welcoming entrepreneurs, the USCIS launched a new portal called Entrepreneur Pathways providing resources on how foreign entrepreneurs can use existing visas to launch their innovative startups in the US.  The portal is quite good, and it is hoped that USCIS officials retreat from their culture of “No” and process cases in the spirit of this new guidance.

At the outset, we clearly need Congress to create a Startup Visa rather than entrepreneurs using existing visas that were not designed for them, but those legislative proposals are still floundering. One version of a Startup Visa would require the entrepreneur to invest a minimum of $100,000 in order to get a two year green card. To keep the green card past two years, the founder would need to create five jobs and either raises at least $500,000 in additional funding or $500,000 in revenues. Even if Congress enacted a Startup Visa, these requirements could be rather burdensome for a nimble entrepreneur who could still launch a successful business without an initial $100,000 investment.

There are enough opportunities under our existing immigration law for entrepreneurs who may not need to make such a high investment in their startup. The existing visa system if interpreted broadly, together with the Startup Visa, would provide a welcoming environment for job creating foreign entrepreneurs in the US. The new portal shows the way on how entrepreneurs can use the existing immigration system to set up ventures in the US and possibly even flourish. While these ideas have been used by creative immigration attorneys on behalf of their clients from time immemorial, it is good to know that the portal validates them, largely based on the input that the USCIS received from real entrepreneurs through its Entrepreneur in Residence initiative. Most important, the EIR has endeavored to train USCIS officers about the unique aspects of a startup business. It is hoped that USCIS officers, after receiving such training, will change their mindset and be willing to distinguishing a legitimate startup from a fraudulent artifice.

For instance, startups may not yet be generating a revenue stream as they are developing new technologies that may lead to products and services later on. Many have received financing through venture capital, angel investors or through “Series A and B” rounds of shares. Startups may also operate in more informal spaces, such as the residences of the founders (with regular meetings at Starbucks) instead of a commercial premise. Some are also operating in “stealth mode” so as not to attract the attention of competitors and may not display the usual bells and whistles such as a website or other marketing material. Startups may also not have payroll records since founders may be compensated in stock options. Still, such startups are legitimate companies that should be able to support H-1B, L, O or other visa statuses.

The portal suggests that if a foreign student has a “Facebook” type of idea, he or she can start a business while in F-1 Optional Practical Training provided the business is directly related to the student’s major area of study. After completing F-1 OPT, this student can potentially switch to H-1B visa status (provided there are H-1B visa numbers at that time). Regarding the startup owner being able to sponsor himself or herself on an H-1B, the USCIS is surprisingly receptive, but still obsessed with the Neufeld Memo that there must be a valid employer-employee relationship and that the entity has a right to control the employment. Still, the USCIS suggests that a startup may be able to demonstrate this if the ownership and control of the company are different. This can be shown through a board of directors, preferred shareholders, investors, or other factors that the organization has the right to control the terms and conditions of the beneficiary’s employment (such as the right to hire, fire, pay, supervise or otherwise control the terms and conditions of employment). Some of the suggested evidence could include a term sheet, capitalization table, stock purchase agreement, investor rights agreement, voting agreement or organization documents and operating agreements.

Even with intra-company transferee L-1 visas for executives and managers, the portal recognizes that an entrepreneur may establish a “new office” L-1 (which could be a subsidiary, parent, affiliate or branch of the foreign company) with a validity period of one year, which allows a ramp up period where the entrepreneur can be involved in “hands on” tasks instead of function as an executive or manager. After the one year ramp up, the organization must be able to support the entrepreneur in a true managerial or executive capacity. The portal also refreshingly suggests that entrepreneurs who can demonstrate extraordinary ability in their field of endeavor can take advantage of the O-1 visa, and can set up a company who can sponsor them. Interestingly, there is no mention of the control test for the O-1 visa like for the H-1B visa. Finally, the portal also provides guidance for nationals of certain countries that have a treaty with the US, which facilitates the E-2 investor visa.

All this looks good on paper (rather online!), and it remains to be seen whether USCIS officers will faithfully interpret this guidance. Even if an H-1B founder of a company successfully establishes that the entity can control her employment through a board of directors or through preferred shareholders, the USCIS could likely challenge whether a position in a startup, where the beneficiary may be wearing many hats, can support a specialized position. The H-1B visa law requires the petitioner to demonstrate that a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field is the minimum qualification for entry into that occupation. Also, positions in innovative startups may not necessarily fit under the occupations listed in the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook but may yet require at least a bachelor’s degree. It is hoped that USCIS examiners are trained to be receptive to other evidence to demonstrate that the position requires a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, an MBA degree should be considered a specialized degree in itself since many MBA programs at top business schools focus on entrepreneurship and other fields, such as technology or web analytics, which equip one to be a successful entrepreneur.

In the end, the success of the Entrepreneur in Residence initiative largely depends on whether the USCIS has been able to alter the mindset of its officials who are in the habit of saying “No.”

WILL THE REVISED USCIS Q&A ON ESTABLSHING THE EMPLOYER-EMPLOYEE RELATIONSHIP IN H-1B PETITIONS SAVE STAFFING COMPANIES?

By Gary Endelman and Cyrus D. Mehta

Since the issuance of the January 8, 2010 guidance memorandum by Donald Neufeld, concerning the employer-employee relationship in H-1B petitions (Neufeld Memo), especially when an employer places an H-1B worker at a third party client site, workers at IT consulting and staffing companies have been the most adversely impacted.  Indeed, it seems that the Neufeld Memo was designed to kill the staffing company.

The adverse effects of the Neufeld Memo have been felt most keenly by Indian nationals on H-1B visas who make up most of the workforce at such companies.  This legitimate IT business model, which has been readily embraced by US corporations, is associated with a distasteful term in immigration parlance, namely the “job shop,” whose presence has become ubiquitous with Indian beneficiaries of employment visa petitions. The heightened scrutiny, often leading to an arbitrary denial, is exercised even if the USCIS has approved the H-1B petition previously on the exact same facts. Most problematically, H-1B visa applicants face unreasonable and arbitrary treatment at US Consulates in India, and are subject to unnecessary demands for the same documentation even after they were submitted to the USCIS, resulting in denials or recommendations for revocation of their petitions. Most Indian H-1B visa holders are fearful of travelling to India presently out of fear that they will be denied a visa based on an approved petition.   CBP at ports of entry has also exercised this subjective scrutiny over Indian H-1B entrants in the IT consulting field at ports of entry.

On March 12, 2012, the USCIS issued a revised Q&A on the Neufeld Memo containing helpful language under Questions 5 and Question 13, which did not exist in the prior guidance dated August 2, 2011.

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.

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.

It is heartening to know that the failure to submit direct document from the end client will not be fatal. It is often times very difficult to obtain such a letter from the end client, especially when there are multi-vendor arrangements between the end client and the H-1B petitioner. Moreover, the end client may not want to be involved in any way in the visa petitioning process, without realizing that its reluctance to submit a letter can result in a denial of the H-1B petition and deprive it of a crucial worker for its project. The revised Q & A states that the petitioner “may submit a combination of any documents to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the required [employer-employee] relationship will exist.” It is hoped that USCIS will not willfully ignore this guidance. Also, consuls should note that the absence of direct documentation from the end client should not cause them to refuse the H-1B visa, and recommend to the USCIS that the H-1B petition be revoked.

Also welcome is the absence of the pejorative term “job shop” in the answer to Question 13, and the fact that the Q&A states that a consulting or staffing company can still demonstrate through the preponderance of the evidence that it has the right to control the work of the beneficiary, even though he or she may be at a third party client site. It also provides helpful tips on how the consulting or staffing firm can demonstrate a right of control through conducting performance reviews, training and counseling for the beneficiary. While the USCIS would doubtless prefer the daily assertion of actual control by the H-1B petitioner even though it has professed that the H-1B employer only exercise the right of control, it is encouraging to note that this latest guidance does indeed provide concrete examples that are truly indicative of “the right to control.” It would appear that, so long as the indicia of ultimate supervision are present, the absence of day-to-day review will not be fatal.  Such flexibility will not only restore a utilitarian suppleness to the H-1B but to other non-immigrant visa categories, notably the off-site L-1B intra-company transferee, where artificial notions of rigid control have also proved consistently at variance with contemporary business practice.

Beyond that, while the H-1B petitioner must always retain primary control, Neufeld redux does not demand total or exclusive control. This could mean, for example, that input from end users as part of performance reviews would not only be tolerated but sanctioned.  While the selection of locations and assignments remain the province of the H-1B petitioner, as they should, there is no reason why daily on-the-job consultations with end user management cannot take place consistent with retention of H-1B status. A distinction between first and last decisions as compared to every day tactical adjustments is good news for an economy still struggling to get back on its feet. Though this may not have been their intent, the drafters of this update have brought the Neufeld memorandum closer to what Judge Kessler had in mind when she dismissed the Broadgate complaint:

To summarize, the Court concludes the Memorandum establishes interpretive guidelines for the implementation of the Regulation, and does not bind USCIS adjudicators in their determinations of Plaintiffs’ H-1B visa applications

This latest guidance represents an unspoken but nonetheless enlightened attempt to align the Neufeld Memorandum with the way America works. If followed, it can help save H-1B petition requests from impending doom. The only remaining issue is whether this revised Q&A will be seriously followed by the USCIS officers, and in turn, by the US Consulates. Regardless,  an H-1B petitioner whose business model involves placing H-1B workers at third party client sites should actively rely on this revised Q&A when filing H-1B petitions or when responding to requests for evidence to assert its right of control over the beneficiary.

There is a larger reason why those of us who have so strenuously attacked the Neufeld Memorandum should welcome this revision. The absence of guidance is the lawyer’s worst nightmare. Without knowing how the game is played, the lawyer does not know when to advance or when to retreat. He or she is prone to putting in too much or not enough, placing undue emphasis on what is tangential while glossing over the truly essential. Some cases take an excessive amount of time to prepare while others are filed prematurely. Law becomes a high stakes poker game, justice by ambush. The USCIS adjudicator is also at sea. Uncertain what standards to employ, frustrated by  nagging suspicion that agile advocacy by an unscrupulous bar will win benefits for clients who do not deserve them, the line analyst at the Vermont or California Service Center faced with a subtle H-1B fact pattern looks in vain to Washington for clarity that does not come. The process becomes complex, complicated and expensive. Conflict replaces cooperation leading to litigation and micromanagement. There seems no exit. When nothing is certain, almost anything can happen.

That is where the Neufeld Memorandum and the August 2011 guidance left us (although the earlier guidance consistent with DHS’s policy to welcome entrepreneurs clarified how an owner of a company could get an H-1B visa). Not really knowing how the USCIS would interpret the third party placement of an H-1B temporary worker, we were left with a Hobson’s choice between bedlam and litigation. The only thing that was certain was the absence of certainty itself. That is why this most recent Neufeld Q&A is so welcome for it has within it the potential to restore clarity and stability to a singularly important question of law in the increasingly contentious H-1B debate at a time when both qualities were singularly lacking. Rhetoric is not reality, however, and the possibility that skeptical USCIS adjudicators will simply ignore this most recent guidance remains a disturbing possibility. We all know from bitter experience the gap between promise and performance. Good intentions in Washington DC can be frustrated quite well by sustained resistance in the trenches. If the wisdom of good men and women will prevail, this will not happen. Hopefully, the deliberate deployment and informed application of this newly minted wisdom will turn the Neufeld Memo from a symbol of intransigence into a  tool for nuanced adjudication. That will deserve the genuine approbation of all those who doubtless will wonder why the USCIS did not think of this earlier.

(The views expressed by guest author, Gary Endelman, are his and not of his firm, FosterQuan LLP)

ONE YEAR AFTER THE NEUFELD MEMO: CAN THE BEAST EVER BE TAMED?

By Cyrus D. Mehta

It has been one year since the issuance of the memo by Donald Neufeld of the USCIS, http://tiny.cc/z3ZU8 which sought to define the employer-employee relationship, especially when an employer places an H-1B worker at a third party client site. The Neufeld Memo is like a wild beast that can never be tamed, but can be kept content in captivity so long as it is well fed. Employers, especially in the IT consulting business, have been forced to change their business practices to ensure that they can establish control over the H-1B employee who is placed at a client site, and immigration attorneys have also learned to address and satisfy on the criteria in order to establish the employer-employee relationship. But there are instances where the wild beast can still try to escape and go on a rampage, and this has been demonstrated by Myriam Jaidi in her article on www.cyrusmehta.com regarding the recent problems faced by H-1B applicants when they apply for an H-1B visa stamp at a US Consulate during their vacation, http://bit.ly/hW7KwO. She writes, “it is not much of a surprise that the scrutiny for such companies has increased at consular posts as well. Consulates request tax returns, notarized employee lists, State Unemployment wage reports, etc., to verify that the employer exists and has the right to control the beneficiary’s work.”

In January 2009, a few days after the issuance of the Neufeld Memo, it appears that even the CBP got the virus and began questioning H-1B visa entrants arriving in the US, especially at Newark airport, http://bit.ly/iefgsy, and even subjected some of them to expedited removal. Even here, we have not heard of the same kind of summary removals after the incidents in January 2009 and this problems seems to have been contained. We are also pleased to report that CBP in Newark did indeed rescind an expedited removal order, and this individual recently returned back to the US in H-1B status from the same airport that issued the expedited removal just under a year ago. We thank Newark for doing the right thing, and hope that it will exercise its discretion wisely in other cases too, http://bit.ly/fFZ0al