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Employer Not Always Obligated To Pay Return Transportation Cost Of Terminated H-1B Worker

In Vinayagam v. Cronous Solutions, Inc., ARB Case No. 15-045, ALJ Case No. 2013-LCA-029 (ARB Feb. 14, 2017) the Administrative Review Board held that an employer’s failure to pay return transportation costs home of a terminated H-1B employee was not fatal when the worker did not return to her home country on her own volition.

When filing a Labor Condition Application (LCA) – a necessary first step in the filing of an H-1B visa petition – the employer attests that it will pay the required wage to the H-1B nonimmigrant worker. See INA 212(n)(1)(A); 20 CFR 655.731(a). The required wage must be paid until there is a bona fide termination of the employment relationship. In order to demonstrate such a bona fide termination of the employment relationship, the ARB held in Amtel Group of Fla., Inc. v. Yongmahapakorn, ARB No. 04-087, ALJ No. 2004-LCA-0006 (ARB Sept. 29, 2006). that an employer must meet three requirements to effectuate a bona termination of the relationship under 20 CFR 655.731(c)(7)(ii). First, the employer must expressly terminate the employment relationship with the H-1B worker. Second, the employer must notify USCIS of the termination so that the USCIS can revoke its prior approval of the employer’s H-1B petition under 8 CFR 214.2(h)(11). Third, the employer must provide the H-1B worker with payment of return transportation home under INA 214(c)(5)(A) and 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(E). If the employer otherwise explicitly terminates the employment relationship, but fails to follow the second and third steps, the employer may still be obligated to pay the required wage for failure to effectuate a bona fide termination. Although in the real world the employer must only undertake step one, in the case of an H-1B worker, the employer must also take steps two and three that have been mandated by the Department of Labor (DOL).

It is the third prong that has been the subject of much interpretation.  Must an employer still offer to pay the return transportation costs even if the worker chooses to remain in the US on his or her own volition? In Vinayagam v. Cronous Solutions, the terminated H-1B worker did not leave the United States on her own volition and unsuccessfully applied for H-1B status through another employer. Prior to this unsuccessful attempt, the worker sought to apply for B-2 visa status, which was also denied. The employer under this scenario was not required to pay the return transportation costs home, and thus was not liable to continue to pay the required wage after the employer fulfilled steps one and two. This decision follows a line of other ARB decisions where the employer was not obligated to pay the return transportation costs where the H-1B worker had married a US citizen and adjusted her status to permanent residence or where the worker found an employer to file another H-1B petition and thus extend H-1B status through that employer or where the H-1B worker outright rejected the reimbursement. If the H-1B worker voluntarily terminates employment prior to the expiration of the authorized H-1B stay or is dismissed when the authorized stay has ended, the employer is not liable for return transportation costs. See Toia v. Gardner Family Care Corp., 2007-LCA-6 (April 25, 2008).

It is intriguing that the Department of Labor has latched on to USCIS rules for requiring a bona fide termination of employment. The employer’s obligation to pay the wage is an obligation under DOL rules, but in determining the employer’s ending of that obligation, the DOL has relied on the rules of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which includes notification to the USCIS that results in the revocation of the H-1B petition (8 CFR 214.2(h)(11) and payment of the return transportation home obligation (8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(E). Naomi Schorr has astutely observed that when one agency engages in interpreting and enforcing the rules of another agency, courts will not defer to that agency’s interpretation. See Schorr, It Makes You Want To Scream: Overstepping Bounds: The Department of Labor and the Bona Fide Termination of H-1B Employees, Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, Oct. 15, 2014. Indeed, in a 1999 exchange of correspondence between a private attorney and the INS, the response was that the “Service views the return transportation provision as a private contractual issue between the petitioner and the beneficiary. As a result, the Service has not developed any policies with respect to the questions that you have raised.” See Letter from Thomas W. Simmons, Chief, INS Business and Trade Services Branch to Robert A. Klipstein (May 20, 1999), reprinted in 70 Interpreter Releases 1140 (July 26, 1999).

While the USCIS does not give this rule any teeth, the DOL has chosen to enforce it against an employer if the employer cannot demonstrate that the H-1B worker chose to stay in the US on his or her own volition. In fact, notwithstanding Vinayagam v. Cronous Solutions, unless it is clearly indicated that the worker chooses to remain in the US, it would be prudent for the employer to give the benefit of doubt to the H-1B worker and offer the return transportation costs home. These cases have shown that the employer must always go through protracted litigation to establish that the H-1B worker voluntarily stayed on in the US in order to escape back wage liability. Moreover, the burden is on the employer to demonstrate whether it had a duty to provide the return transportation costs and whether it had satisfied that requirement. See Gupta v. Jain Software Consulting, Inc., ARB No. 05-008, ALJ No. 2004-LCA-039 (ARB Mar. 30, 2007).

The High Skilled Worker Rule that took effect on January 18, 2017 provides for a 60 day grace period to H-1B as well as other nonimmigrant workers holding E-1, E-2, E-3, H-1B1, L-1 or TN status. See 8 CFR 214.1(2). The 60 day grace period is indeed a salutary feature. Up until the rule took effect, whenever a worker in nonimmigrant status got terminated, they were immediately rendered to be in violation of status. Derivative family members, whose fortunes were attached to the principal’s, would also be rendered out of status upon the principal falling out status. Thus, the 60 day grace period not only gives the worker more time to leave the United States, but it also provides a window of opportunity to find another employer who can file an extension or change of status within the 60 day period. Similarly, the worker could also potentially change to some other status on his or her own, such as to F-1, after enrolling in a school.

The new 60 day grace period may incentivize the H-1B worker to remain in the US, and thus enable an employer to escape paying the return transportation costs. On other hand, it should not be viewed as a green light to never offer the return transportation costs home. While the 60 day grace period does allow a terminated worker some cushion in finding another employer in the US, it also provides a cushion for the worker to leave the United States less abruptly if terminated prior . In the latter situation, the employer’s failure to offer return transportation costs home could still render the employer liable for back wages as a result of not effectuating a bona fide termination.

DELAYS FOR OVERSEAS SPOUSES OF US CITIZENS SEEKING GREEN CARDS


One of the most fundamental benefits under immigration law is for the ability of a US citizen to quickly sponsor a foreign national spouse for a green card.  While the granting of immigration benefits is contentious in today’s political environment, no one has disputed, even immigration restrictionists, that a US citizen cannot swiftly bring into this country a foreign national whom he or she has married overseas. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the spouse of a US citizen qualifies as an immediate relative, and falls outside the quotas that other relatives of US citizens may be subject to such as adult sons and daughters or siblings. Minor children and parents of US citizens also qualify as immediate relatives.

The Form I-130 petition is used to sponsor a spouse, minor child or parent of a US citizen who is outside the US. In the recent past, such an I-130 petition filed with the United States Immigration and Citizenship Services on behalf of an immediate relative got approved in about 3-4 months. The case was then sent to the National Visa Center, a clearing house for the consular posts of the Department of State. Once the petitioner submitted the required documents to the NVC, the file was dispatched to the consular post and an appointment was quickly scheduled. The entire process generally took about six months or a little over.

More recently, I-130 petitions filed on behalf of spouses and other immediate relatives are reportedly taking much longer. This author has heard that I-130s filed in January or February 2013 have still not been approved. The Vermont Service Center states that I-130 petitions received on October 22, 2012 for immediate relatives are being adjudicated presently. The California Service Center does not indicate any processing time for a similar I-130 petition.  This is quite frankly a shocking state of affairs. The reason for the delay is that the I-130s are being shunted to local USCIS offices for processing rather than being processed at the California or Vermont Service Centers, which is how they were processed previously. Still, this is no excuse for the USCIS to cause so much delay. It makes no sense to allow spouses of US citizen to wait for so long outside the US before they can join their loved one in the US. The USCIS is capable of far greater efficiency as it demonstrated when it more quickly adjudicated thousands upon thousands of applications under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

While the filing of a concurrent I-130 petition with an I-485 application for adjustment of status may process more quickly, the foreign spouse has to be in the US in order to adjust status. If a spouse enters the US on a nonimmigrant visa, such as a tourist visa, with the intention to adjust status, such an I-485 can be denied if the spouse had a preconceived intent to apply for permanent residence while entering the country as a tourist. If, on the other hand, the spouse came genuinely as a tourist, but changed his or her mind after arriving in the US, then it can be demonstrated that there was no preconceived intent, or worse, fraud or misrepresentation with respect to the purpose of entering the US on a tourist visa.  Of course, if the spouse enters on a nonimmigrant visa, such as an H-1B or L visa, which allows for dual intent, then the spouse’s intent to apply for a permanent immigrant benefit is not an issue. The number of people on H or L visas who become spouses of US citizens is relatively few, though, and many people are unable to apply for a tourist visa to even visit the US temporarily to meet their spouses while the I-130 petition remains pending. People who are nationals of Visa Waiver countries can visit the US for 90 days without applying for a visa, but they too may risk being questioned about their intent at the port of entry.

The filing of an I-130 petition for consular processing, when the spouse is based overseas, is thus the legally appropriate method to apply. The USCIS should not discourage this process by inordinately delaying the approval of an I-130 petition, and thus encourage people to circumvent the process by coming on tourist visas, or other nonimmigrant visas that do not allow for dual intent, with the intent to apply for adjustment of status. Moreover, it is worth noting that with Section 3 of the  Defense of Marriage Act being declared unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor, same sex spouses of US citizen can also for a green card through an I-130 petition. These spouses were unjustly deprived of a benefit for years on end as a result of an unconstitutional statute, and they should not be required to wait that much longer for the I-130 petition to get approved.

In light of long delays in the processing of the I-130 petition, it may be worth considering filing an I-129F petition for a K-3 visa. Congress specifically designed the K-3 visa to allow spouses of US citizens to enter the US if the I-130 processing got delayed. In recent times, K-3 petitions have not been filed due to the fact that I-130 petitions were processed in a few months. It now makes sense to revive the K-3, and to file for it after the I-130 petition has been filed. Both the Vermont and California Service Centers indicate that K-3 processing is taking 5 months. If that time frame is accurate, then the beneficiary of a pending I-130 petition, which is expected to take a year or longer under current processing times, can at least unite with the US citizen spouse through a K-3 visa. Once the spouse is here on a K-3 visa, it is permissible under law to file an I-485 application for adjustment of status. While this is not a perfect solution as it involves two steps, the spouse can at least expect to unite with the US citizen spouse somewhat sooner.

(This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice)

Waiving Goodbye to Unappealable Decisions: Indirect AAO Jurisdiction, or Why Having Your Appeal Dismissed Can Sometimes be a Good Thing

The USCIS Administrative Appeals Office, or AAO, has administrative appellate jurisdiction over a wide variety of USCIS decisions that are not appealable to the Board of Immigration Appeals.  This jurisdiction is primarily set forth in a regulatory list that has been absent from the Code of Federal Regulations since 2003, but was incorporated by reference that year into DHS Delegation 0150.1.  Pursuant to that delegation, as manyAAOdecisionsstate, the AAO exercises appellate jurisdiction over the matters described at 8 C.F.R. 103.1(f)(3)(iii) as in effect on February 28, 2003.  (It has been previously pointed out by attorney Matt Cameron that a currently nonexistent jurisdictional regulation is an undesirable state of affairs for an appellate body; USCIS recently indicated in a July 2013 Policy Memorandum regarding certification of decisions that DHS intends to replace the list in the regulations in a future rulemaking.)

The regulatory list of applications over which the AAO has jurisdiction does not include Form I-485 applications for adjustment of status, with a minor exception relating to applications based on a marriage entered into during removal proceedings denied for failure to meet the bona fide marriage exemption under INA §245(e).  Thus, it would appear that the AAO would not have appellate jurisdiction over denials of adjustment applications, and that one’s sole administrative recourse if an adjustment application is denied would be to seek review before an immigration judge in removal proceedings, as is generally permitted (except for certain arriving aliens) by 8 C.F.R. §1245.2(a)(5)(ii).  But appearances can be deceiving.

Many, although not all, of the grounds for denial of an adjustment application are potentially subject to waiver under appropriate conditions.  If an application is denied because the applicant was found inadmissible under INA §212(a)(2)(A)(i) due to conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude (“CIMT”), for example, a waiver can be sought under INA §212(h) if either the criminal conduct took place more than 15 years ago, or the applicant can attempt to demonstrate that the applicant’s U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse, parent, son or daughter would face extreme hardship if the applicant were not admitted.  Similarly, one who is found inadmissible under INA §212(a)(6)(C)(i) due to fraud or willful misrepresentation (not involving a false claim to U.S. citizenship taking place after September 30, 1996) can seek a waiver of inadmissibility under INA §212(i) based on extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse or parent.  Various other grounds of inadmissibility are waiveable as well.

While the AAO does not have jurisdiction directly over the denial of an adjustment application, the AAO does have jurisdiction over the denial of most waiver applications.  And in the AAO’s view, appellate jurisdiction to determine whether someone should have been granted a waiver necessarily includes jurisdiction to decide whether that applicant even needed a waiver in the first place.  If the AAO finds that a waiver was unnecessary, it will dismiss the waiver appeal and remand for further processing of the adjustment application.  That is, it will decide on appeal that the applicant was not, in fact, inadmissible, and thus in effect will have reviewed the denial of the underlying adjustment application even without regard to whether a waiver would be justified if one were indeed necessary.  Although this process does not appear to be documented in any precedential AAO decision, comparatively few AAO precedent decisions of any sort having been published, this exercise of indirect appellate jurisdiction by the AAO occurs with some frequency in non-precedential, “unpublished” decisions that have been made available online (generally by USCIS itself, or occasionally by other sources).

Dismissal of a waiver appeal as moot can occur in the context of a §212(h) waiver, for example, where the AAO finds that the applicant’s conviction was not for a CIMT (see also these additional decisionsfrom 2012; 2010; February, March, Apriland June of 2009; 2008; and 2007).  Even if the applicant does have a CIMT conviction, that AAO may conclude that the applicant’s only conviction for a CIMT qualifies for the petty offense exception under INA §212(a)(2)(A)(ii)(II) and thus does not give rise to inadmissibility (see also these decisions along the same lines from Januaryand Marchof 2009, 2008, and 2006).  Dismissal of a §212(h) waiver application as moot can also occur when the AAO finds that the applicant was not convicted of a crime at all given that the official disposition of a charge was a “Nolle prosequi, or that an applicant who was not convicted of a crime had not given a valid admission to the elements of a crime, in accordance with the procedural safeguards required by precedent, so as to give rise to inadmissibility in the absence of a conviction.  Outside the CIMT context, as well, the AAO can dismiss a §212(h) waiver appeal as moot upon a finding that no waiver is needed, such as when someone who was thought to have a waiveable conviction involving 30 grams or less of marijuana successfully points out on appeal that disorderly conduct under a statute not mentioning drugs is not an offense relating to a controlled substance.

In the context of a denial based on inadmissibility for fraud or misrepresentation, the AAO can dismiss an appeal from the denial of a §212(i) waiver as moot if it finds that the misrepresentation was not material (see also these decisions from 2010, 2009and 2007), or that an applicant who was victimized by others submitting a fraudulent application on his behalf without his knowledge did not make a willful misrepresentation, or that any misrepresentation was the subject of a timely retraction (see also this decision from 2006).  AAO dismissal of a §212(i) waiver appeal as moot can also be used to vindicate the legal principle that presenting a false Form I-94 or similar false documentation to an employer to obtain employment does not give rise to inadmissibility under §212(a)(6)(C)(i), and neither does procuring false immigration documentation from a private individual more generally, because a misrepresentation under 212(a)(6)(C)(i) must be made to an authorized U.S. government official.  Finally, AAO dismissal of a §212(i) waiver appeal as moot can occur where the only alleged misrepresentation occurred in the context of a legalization program which is subject to statutory confidentiality protection, such as the SAW (Special Agricultural Worker) program under INA §210 or a LULAC late legalization application or other application under INA §245A, and therefore any such misrepresentation cannot be the basis of inadmissibility under §212(a)(6)(C)(i) because of the confidentiality protection.

This sort of indirect AAO jurisdiction can also be used to correct errors regarding inadmissibility for unlawful presence under INA §212(a)(9)(B), if a waiver application is filed under INA §212(a)(9)(B)(v).  For example, in a 2012 decision involving an applicant who was admitted for duration of status (D/S) and had been incorrectly found to have accrued unlawful presence after failing to maintain status even absent any finding of such by USCIS or an immigration judge, contrary to the 2009 Neufeld/Scialabba/Chang USCIS consolidated guidance memorandum on unlawful presence, the AAO dismissed the appeal as moot upon finding that the applicant was not, in fact, inadmissible under §212(a)(9)(B).

The AAO’s indirect appellate jurisdiction over inadmissibility determinations has even been exercised where the initial inadmissibility determination was made not by a USCIS officer in the context of an application for adjustment of status, but by a Department of State consular officer in the context of a consular application for an immigrant visa.  In a 2009 decision, the AAO dismissed as moot an appeal from the denial of a §212(h) waiver by the Officer in Charge (OIC) in Manila, holding that the applicant did not require a waiver because the applicant’s admission to an examining physician that he had used marijuana in the past did not give rise to inadmissibility, and that Pazcoguin v. Radcliffe, 292 F.3d 1209 (9th Cir. 2002) (finding a valid admission to the elements of a crime resulting in inadmissibility under similar circumstances) did not apply because the applicant and the office that made the decision were located in the Philippines rather than within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit.  The AAO ordered “the matter returned to the OIC for further processing of the immigrant visa application.” It explained the source of its authority in this context as follows:

The Secretary of Homeland Security (and by delegation, the AAO) has final responsibility over guidance to consular officers concerning inadmissibility for visa applicants. See Memorandum of Understanding Between Secretaries of State and Homeland Security Concerning Implementation of Section 428 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, issued September 30, 2003, at 3.

Matter of X- (AAO June 17, 2009), at 4.

Nor was that Manila case an isolated exception, although the detailed explanation of the source of the AAO’s authority in the consular context that was contained in that decision is rarer that the exercise of the authority itself.  The AAO has also dismissed as moot an appeal of the denial of an application for a §212(h) waiver by the Mexico City district director in the case of an applicant who sought an immigrant visa in the Dominican Republic and had been convicted of a firearms offense which would properly give rise to deportability but not inadmissibility; dismissed an appeal from a decision of the Frankfurt, Germany OIC denying a §212(h) waiver for an applicant whom the AAO determined had not been convicted of a CIMT; dismissed an appeal from a decision of the Vienna, Austria OIC denying a §212(h) waiver for an applicant the AAO found had only been subject to juvenile delinquency proceedings not giving rise to a conviction for immigration purposes under Matter of Devison-Charles, 22 I&N Dec. 1362 (BIA 2001); and dismissed another appeal from a decision of the Vienna OIC where the AAO found that the applicant’s conviction qualified for the petty offense exception.  Indeed, the AAO has exercised its indirect appellate jurisdiction over a consular inadmissibility determination in at least one appeal from a decision of the Mexico City district director where “the applicant did not appear to contest the district director’s determination of inadmissibility” but the AAO found that neither of the crimes of which the applicant had been convicted was a CIMT.  The AAO’s indirect appellate jurisdiction has also been exercised in a case coming from the New Delhi, India OIC where an applicant disputed his date of departure from the United States which started the running of the ten-year bar, and the AAO found that the applicant’s actual departure had been more than ten years prior and thus no §212(a)(9)(B)(v) waiver was required.

Perhaps most interestingly, it appears that the AAO will even exercise its indirect appellate jurisdiction over inadmissibility determinations in some cases where the applicant has failed to demonstrate prima facie eligibility for the relevant waiver, although the only examples that this author have been able to find of this involve the AAO’s indirect jurisdiction over USCIS adjustment denials rather than consular-processing of an immigrant visa.  In a 2006 decision, an applicant who had not provided any evidence that his wife was a Lawful Permanent Resident who could serve as a qualifying relative for either a §212(i) waiver or a §212(a)(9)(B)(v) waiver was found not to be inadmissible because he had made a timely retraction of any misrepresentation, and had accrued no unlawful presence due to last departing the United States in 1989.  In a 2009 decision, an applicant who had pled guilty to hiring undocumented workers, and who had been found inadmissible under INA §212(a)(6)(E)(i) for alien smuggling and appealed the denial of his application for a waiver of inadmissibility under INA §212(d)(11), was found not inadmissible by the AAO, which withdrew the district director’s contrary finding—even though the district director had found that the applicant did not meet the requirements of §212(d)(11), and seems very likely to have been right about that, since §212(d)(11)applies only to an applicant who “has encouraged, induced, assisted, abetted, or aided only an individual who at the time of the offense was the alien’s spouse, parent, son, or daughter (and no other individual) to enter the United States in violation of law.”  And in 2010, the AAO declared moot a waiver application under INA §212(g) by an individual infected with HIV who apparently had not established any relationship with a qualifying relative, on the ground that in January 2010 the Centers for Disease Control had removed HIV from the official list of communicable diseases of public health significance, and therefore HIV infection was no longer a ground of inadmissibility.  Some potentially difficult ethical and practical questions would need to be resolved before deliberately filing a waiver application on behalf of an applicant ineligible for such waiver in order to obtain AAO review of whether the applicant was inadmissible at all, but it is at least a possibility worthy of further analysis.

So when an application for adjustment of status, or even for a consular-processed immigrant visa, is denied, it is important to keep in mind that an appeal may be available even if it does not appear so at first glance, and that establishing the necessary hardship to a qualifying relative to support a waiver application is not necessarily the only way to win the case.  If a waiver of the ground upon which the denial was based is at least theoretically available, so as to support AAO jurisdiction over the denial of that waiver, then one can leverage the waiver to seek AAO review of whether a waiver was necessary in the first place.

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.”

“CULTURALLY UNIQUE” DEFINITION UNDER P-3 VISA CAN INCLUDE HYBRID OR FUSION ART FORMS OF MORE THAN ONE CULTURE OR REGION

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) issued a binding precedent decision in Matter of Skirball Cultural Center, 25 I&N Dec. 799 (AAO 2012) addressing the term “culturally unique” and its significance in adjudicating P-3 visa petitions for performing artists and entertainers. This decision is significant in light of a growing trend where the culturally unique artistic tradition of one country or ethnicity is influenced by artistic traditions from elsewhere. For instance, musicians trained in Indian classical music have incorporated Western jazz and rock influences. The most famous example of such a fusion band was Shakti, which incorporated South Indian Carnatic music and jazz elements, featuring guitarist John McLaughlin, South Indian violinist L. Shankar and Zakir Hussain on tabla and T.H Vikku Vinayakram on the ghatam (an earthen pot). Examples of hybrid groups abound all over the world, and a contemporary example is Afro Celt Sound Systems, which is a hybrid of African and Celt music. Afrobeat is another classic example of a fusion genre that originally fused American funk music with African rhythms, and its main exponent has been Fela Kuti. Until this decision, there was a risk that such groups would not be considered to be “culturally unique” as they did not incorporate the music which is unique to a particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other group of persons.

The Skirball Cultural Center filed a P-3 nonimmigrant petition on behalf of a musical group from Argentina that was denied a performing artists’ visa for failing to establish that the group’s performance was “culturally unique” as required for this visa classification. USCIS noted that “due to the unusually complex and novel issue and the likelihood that the same issue could arise in future decisions, the decision was recommended for review.”

The AAO approved the petition after its review of the entire record, which included expert written testimony and corroborating evidence on behalf of the musical group. USCIS said that the regulatory definition of “culturally unique” requires the agency to make a case-by-case factual determination. The decision clarifies that a “culturally unique” style of art or entertainment is not limited to traditional art forms, but may include artistic expression that is deemed to be a hybrid or fusion of more than one culture or region.

The petitioner had sought classification of the beneficiaries as P-3 entertainers for a period of approximately six weeks. The beneficiaries were musicians in the group known as Orquesta Kef. The ensemble of seven musicians from Argentina had been performing together for between four and eight years, according to a letter dated September 2009, and performed music that blended klezmer (Jewish music of Eastern Europe) with Latin and South American influences. The group’s biography stated that the band had developed “its own and unique musical style” based on “the millenary force of tradition and the powerful emotion of the Jewish culture, mixed in with Latin American sounds.” The petitioner also provided a letter from an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication supporting the band’s claim to cultural uniqueness, among other submitted expert opinion letters and published materials.

The decision noted that Congress did not define the term “culturally unique” and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (now USCIS) defined it in regulations as “a style of artistic expression, methodology, or medium which is unique to a particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other group of persons.” See 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(p)(3)(2012).

In her decision denying the petition, the director stated that a hybrid or fusion style of music “cannot be considered culturally unique to one particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other group of persons.”

The AAO said that the director’s reasoning was not supported by the record, noting:

[T]he fact that the regulatory definition allows its application to an unspecified “group of persons” makes allowances for beneficiaries whose unique artistic expression crosses regional, ethnic, or other boundaries. While a style of artistic expression must be exclusive to an identifiable people or territory to qualify under the regulations, the idea of “culture” is not static and must allow for adaptation or transformation over time and across geographic boundaries. The term “group of persons” gives the regulatory definition a great deal of flexibility and allows for the emergence of distinct subcultures. Furthermore, the nature of the regulatory definition of “culturally unique” requires USCIS to make a case-by-case factual determination based on the agency’s expertise and discretion. Of course, the petitioner bears the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that the beneficiaries’ artistic expression, while drawing from diverse influences, is unique to an identifiable group of persons with a distinct culture. To determine whether the beneficiaries’ artistic expression is unique, the director must examine each piece of evidence for relevance, probative value, and credibility, both individually and within the context of the entire record.

The AAO pointed out that the director’s decision failed to note that the beneficiary group was a klezmer band and “seemed to struggle to identify the nature of the group’s musical performance, focusing instead on the group’s musical influences. Here, the evidence establishes that the beneficiaries’ music is, first and foremost, Jewish klezmer music that has been uniquely fused with traditional Argentine musical styles.” The AAO said it found particularly persuasive an expert opinion explaining that klezmer music, “while often associated with ethnically Jewish people, is an artistic form that has migrated and is continually mixed with and influenced by other cultures.” The AAO also noted the fact that the beneficiaries were South Americans born to Eastern European immigrants and therefore were influenced by both cultures to create something new and unique to their experience. All the opinion letters submitted also recognized the existence of a distinct Jewish Argentine culture and identity that was expressed in the beneficiary group’s music. Furthermore, the AAO noted, the published articles submitted recognized a musical movement in Argentina that fuses Argentine styles with influences from Jewish music and other Eastern European styles, and the articles and opinion letters placed the beneficiary group at the forefront of this trend.

Accordingly, the AAO found that the petitioner had established by a preponderance of the evidence that the modern South American klezmer music performed by the beneficiary group was representative of the Jewish culture of the beneficiaries’ home country of Argentina and that the group’s musical performance therefore fell within the regulatory definition of “culturally unique.” The AAO added that the petitioner had submitted an itinerary showing that the beneficiary group would be performing at Jewish cultural centers and temples during its U.S. tour, which provided further evidence that the performances would be culturally unique events.

Matter of Skirball Cultural Center remarkably recognizes the significance of crossover cultural trends and that “the idea of culture is not static,” which is increasing in our globalized world, where people have access to music from anywhere on an iPhone and have learned to enjoy fusion and hybrid forms. The favorable impact of this decision can extend to other art forms such as dance and drama too. Thanks to this decision, audiences in America need not fear of being deprived of hearing their favorite fusion bands live!