DHS Announces Final Rule for a More Effective and Efficient H-1B Visa Program
Final Rule Effective Beginning April 1, 2019
WASHINGTON—The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) posted today for public inspection, a final rule amending regulations governing H-1B cap-subject petitions, including those that may be eligible for the advanced degree exemption. The final rule reverses the order by which U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) selects H-1B petitions under the H-1B regular cap and the advanced degree exemption, and it introduces an electronic registration requirement for petitioners seeking to file H-1B cap-subject petitions. The rule will be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 31, and will go into effect on April 1, though the electronic registration requirement will be suspended for the fiscal year (FY) 2020 cap season.
“These simple and smart changes are a positive benefit for employers, the foreign workers they seek to employ, and the agency’s adjudicators, helping the H-1B visa program work better,” said USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna. “The new registration system, once implemented, will lower overall costs for employers and increase government efficiency. We are also furthering President Trump’s goal of improving our immigration system by making a simple adjustment to the H-1B cap selection process. As a result, U.S. employers seeking to employ foreign workers with a U.S. master’s or higher degree will have a greater chance of selection in the H-1B lottery in years of excess demand for new H-1B visas.”
Effective April 1, USCIS will first select H-1B petitions (or registrations, once the registration requirement is implemented) submitted on behalf of all beneficiaries, including those that may be eligible for the advanced degree exemption. USCIS will then select from the remaining eligible petitions, a number projected to reach the advanced degree exemption. Changing the order in which USCIS counts these allocations will likely increase the number of petitions for beneficiaries with a master’s or higher degree from a U.S. institution of higher education to be selected under the H-1B numerical allocations. Specifically, the change will result in an estimated increase of up to 16% (or 5,340 workers) in the number of selected petitions for H-1B beneficiaries with a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. institution of higher education.
USCIS will begin accepting H-1B cap petitions for FY 2020 on April 1, 2019. The reverse selection order will apply to petitions filed for the FY 2020 H-1B cap season. Petitioners may file an H-1B petition no more than six months before the employment start date requested for the beneficiary. USCIS will provide H-1B cap filing instruction on uscis.gov in advance of the filing season.
Importantly, after considering public feedback, USCIS will be suspending the electronic registration requirement for the FY 2020 cap season to complete user testing and ensure the system and process are fully functional. Once implemented, the electronic registration requirement will require petitioners seeking to file H-1B cap petitions, including those that may be eligible for the advanced degree exemption, to first electronically register with USCIS during a designated registration period. Only those whose registrations are selected will be eligible to file an H-1B cap-subject petition. USCIS expects that the electronic registration requirement, once implemented, will reduce overall costs for petitioners and create a more efficient and cost-effective H-1B cap petition process for USCIS and petitioners.
Additionally, USCIS will publish a notice in the Federal Register to announce the initial implementation of the H-1B registration process in advance of the cap season in which it will implement the requirement. Prior to implementation, USCIS will conduct outreach to ensure petitioners understand how to access and use the system. Once implemented, USCIS will announce the designated electronic registration period at least 30 days in advance for each fiscal year it is required.
On April 18, 2017, President Trump issued the Buy American and Hire American Executive Order, instructing DHS to “propose new rules and issue new guidance, to supersede or revise previous rules and guidance if appropriate, to protect the interests of U.S. workers in the administration of our immigration system.” The executive order specifically mentioned the H-1B program and directed DHS and other agencies to “suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.”
USCIS Resumes Premium Processing for All H-1B Petitions – Could Earn Approx. $330,000,000 in PP Fees This Year
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it will resume premium processing for all H-1B petitions beginning today, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. This is welcome news for many petitioners and beneficiaries who have been subjected to significant delays in processing, and certainly, great news for USCIS itself. There is no doubt that Premium Processing fees, increased to $1,410.00 per petition last year, are an important source of revenue for USCIS, given that is “funded primarily by immigration and naturalization benefit fees charged to applicants and petitioners.”
Premium Processing fees are technically optional, but frequently paid to increase the speed of adjudication from several months to potentially as little as two (2) to four (4) weeks. This program was suspended and unavailable for many H-1B categories over the last 6-12 months during which time such professionals and their employers nervously witnessed (or were impacted by) adjudication delays of approximately 4-12+ months, as well as USCIS’s frequent internal changes to its adjudication criteria which allowed it to issue bizzare numbers of queries and denials of H-1B petitions in 2018.
USCIS itself has generated both a pent-up demand and a critical need for its expensive premium processing program; as the January 20, 2019 research memo released by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) concluded, USCIS is “adjudicating cases at an unacceptably and increasingly slow pace…” More specifically, AILA’s research stated that:
The overall average case processing time surged by 46 percent over the past two fiscal years and 91 percent since FY 2014.
•USCIS processed 94 percent of its form types—from green cards for family members to visas for human trafficking victims to petitions for immigrant workers—more slowly in FY 2018 than in FY 2014.
•Case processing times increased substantially in FY 2018 even as case receipt volume appeared to markedly decrease.
Other agency data lays bare a USCIS “net backlog” exceeding 2.3 million delayed cases at the end of FY 2017. This total amounts to more than a 100 percent increase over the span of one year despite only a four percent rise in case receipts during that period.
The resumption of USCIS’s premium processing program will find many takers among H-1B professionals; and USCIS could gain approximately $330 million dollars in revenue from it this fiscal year. This approximation, by way of background, is arrived at by multiplying the average number of premium processing cases from FY2013-FY2017 as noted in the 08/31/2018 “Adjustment to Premium Processing Fee” Rule by the Homeland Security Department (238,784) by the current Premium Processing fee of $1,410.00 = $336,685,440.
|Fiscal year||Total Form I-907 receipts received|
|Source: USCIS, Office of the Chief Financial Officer.|
H-1B professionals and their employers have an interest in adjudications free of undue delay, and because they are effectively required to do so, they will pay more. These parties have been significantly impacted by “BAHA” Executive Order and thus appreciate the security that comes with a final decision “in-hand”, to travel, change employers, get married, renew a drivers license, or in general, to live a slightly less uncertain life on foreign soil. Ultimately, it is all about perspective: an American would likely consider paying “base” government fees of up to $6,450.00 per H-1B petition more than sufficient to fund an adjudication that is timely, just, and logical. But H-1B workers and their employers are overjoyed at the opportunity to pay $1,410.00 more to USCIS for nothing more than a timely decision.
Breaking News: Bloomberg’s Laura Francis Confirms Significant Increase in H-1B Denial Rates for IT Professionals
I was interviewed by Ms. Francis for this story re: the implications of the latest data from USCIS demonstrating a significant increase in H-1B denials for the IT Consulting Industry. It is hoped that public scrutiny will bring a quick halt to the illegal denials of otherwise eligible H-1Bs petitions, which disproportionately target and affect Indian Nationals.
USCIS’s final rule on changes to the H-1B lottery process adds a requirement that petitioners seeking to file H-1B petitions subject to the regular cap, including those eligible for the advanced degree exemption, first electronically register with USCIS during a designated period. However, USCIS is suspending this proposed registration requirement for the FY2020 cap season in order to complete testing of the new registration system.
The rule also reverses the order by which USCIS selects H-1B registrations (or petitions, for FY2020 or any other year in which the registration requirement is suspended) by first selecting registrations submitted on behalf of all beneficiaries, including those eligible for the advanced degree exemption. USCIS will then select from the remaining registrations a sufficient number projected as needed to reach the advanced degree exemption. This change to the order of the selection process will be implemented for the FY2020 cap season. The rule will be published in the Federal Register on 1/31/19 and will be effective 60 days from the date of publication.
USCIS’s announcement follows:
Increased Time/Difficulty in Filing H-1B Petitions Likely Due to Burdensome New LCA/ETA Form 9035 Form Rolling Out on November 19, 2018
The Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced that the new ETA Form 9035, Labor Condition Application (LCA) for Nonimmigrant Workers, will be fully implemented on November 19, 2018. The existing LCA remains valid and the public can continue to file it until November 19, 2018. Employers or their authorized representatives who are filing an LCA on or after November 19, 2018, must use the revised form. Certified LCAs filed prior to November 19, 2018 will also remain valid and can be used by petitioners to support H-1B filings.
AILA has already submitted comments on the proposed revised form during the Notice and Comment period in October 2017 and June 2018. In the latter, AILA noted that the additional time required to complete the new ETA 9035 had been significantly underestimated by DOL and that, “[w]hile the proposed changes are largely helpful, there are nevertheless areas where the proposed changes may (1) violate regulatory requirements; (2) create unnecessary new burdens on employers; and (3) fail in practice to meet DOL’s stated purpose of providing clarification.”
On 11/1/18, the Compete America coalition has issued a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services raising the issue that, “The agency’s current approach to H-1B adjudications cannot be anticipated by either the statutory or regulatory text, leaving employers with a disruptive lack of clarity….”
The letter reiterates the major concerns that my colleagues and I have (frequently) raised, beginning with legal concerns about current H-1B adjudications because USCIS appears to have taken leave of two principles underscoring eligible H-1B petitions, “First, the job offered must be in “…an occupation which requires theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge.” Second, a four-year university degree or graduate or professional degree must be the “usual, common, or typical” requirement for the job. Patterns in H-1B adjudications over the last 18 months suggest other standards are being applied.”
The letter identified “patterns in H-1B adjudications that reflect new agency interpretations inserting salary requirements as an unstated prerequisite“, despite the fact that “nothing in the statute or regulations contemplates or suggests, that USCIS could ever take the position that it per se excludes or disfavors entry-level jobs in an occupation, or young professionals working in jobs in an occupation, as qualifying for H-1B specialty occupation approval.”
The origination of this particular pattern arose about 18 months ago, at the end of March 2017, when USCIS issued a surprise policy change effectively holding Level 1 Prevailing Wages to be insufficient in establishing eligibility for H-1B approval, particularly for IT workers. As I’ve previously indicated on this point that the Dept of Labor sets prevailing wage levels for H-1B professions every year in July, in other words, the DOL can and generally does increase these wage levels every year: there was no legitimate statutory or regulatory basis or need for USCIS to have inserted itself in an established wage determination process, nor for it suddenly declare ineligible for H-1B status those jobs with wages otherwise compliant with DOL requirements. This relatively new wage issue seems driven by motives that go beyond simple or logical explanations, especially when we note that the converse argument highlighting the fact that a Petitioner is paying a Level 3 or 4 (highest) wage as an element in establishing Specialty Occupation can be dismissed by USCIS as irrelevant:
Among its other points, the coalition letter also expressed concern as to “Patterns in H-1B adjudications that reflect new agency interpretations beyond the statute’s prerequisites for a “Specific Specialty” of study”. The letter highlights the fact that, “...[n]othing in the statute allows for administrative discretion to restrict a qualifying specialty occupation to only those occupations where “the specific specialty” necessary for the job is only obtainable through completion of a single, exclusive degree.” Despite this, USCIS will normally presume that, “…alternative degree options as the minimum requirement for a job suggest, standing alone, that a specific body of knowledge is not required.”
Quartz India and Harvard Professor’s Insufficiently Researched Proposal on “Fixing the H-1B program”
Quartz India recently published an insufficiently researched proposal by Harvard Professor on “Fixing the H-1B program” in which the Professor erroneously relies on last year’s debunked fake news story claiming the “H-1B minimum wage” is “$60,000“.
To complement wage ranking and to preserve scarce visas for the best uses, America should also raise the H-1B minimum wage from $60,000 to a higher figure like $100,000, perhaps with a few lower thresholds for occupations like social work or entrepreneurship. This minimum level can be designed with automatic adjustments for future years that are based on inflation or changes in average US wages. If a higher minimum wage causes demand to fall short of supply at times, unused visas can be saved and reintroduced when supply becomes again constrained, with visas that sit too long simply expiring. There are downsides to wage floors, such as their mismatch to innovative jobs that may be better served with heavy equity incentives, but minimum wages can provide strong assurances to the public that visas are being put toward best uses.
The Professor appears to have based his magical $60,000 figure on incorrect news articles reporting on U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s (D-Calif.) proposed legislation last year entitled, the “High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017”. As I had noted on January 31, 2017, there is no $60,000 minimum H-1B wage, and that Lofgren’s legislation was only attempting to increase the level at which an H-1B petitioner could avoid H-1B Dependent status.
And in any case, even if you hypothetically assume that $60,000 was a true figure, there are already simple mechanisms in place increase this level at any time, which in fact have already largely been implemented:
- the Dept of Labor sets prevailing wage levels for H-1B professions EVERY YEAR IN JULY. The DOL can and generally does increase these wage levels every year.
- at the end of March 2017, the USCIS issued a surprise policy change effectively holding Level 1 Prevailing Wages to be insufficient in establishing eligibility for H-1B approval, particularly for IT workers.
On the topic of wages, I wish to note that this Administration seems intent on reducing H-1B approvals, especially to Indian IT workers and their Petitioners, and the wage issue is, in my opinion, already addressed and now just an excuse. Otherwise qualified Level 4 (top) wage earning IT H-1B workers are not automatically spared a denial. The H-1B program, as set out by Congress, has been modified repeatedly by several “pop goes the weasel” style policy changes and multiple “reinterpretations” of existing H-1B laws and guidance at the behest of of this Administration, the latter driven by motives that obviously go beyond simple or logical issues like DOL issued wage rates.
Trump Admin’s Proposed Policy Entitled “Strengthening the H-1B Nonimmigrant Visa Classification Program” Set to Target the H-1B Program
Bloomberg recently reported that the Administration plans to remodel the H-1B program eligibility criteria from a baccalaureate degree to a discretionary “Best and Brightest” requirement, perhaps more in line with the O-1 Extraordinary Ability program. This would impose substantial and new burdens on H-1B seekers, particularly on IT professionals, and effectively change the H-1B program as we know it.
“The Trump administration plans to narrow the definition of specialty occupation to limit the use of H-1B visas, but it may be limited in how far it can go.
A proposal expected in January from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would refine the meaning of specialty occupation “to focus on obtaining the best and the brightest foreign nationals via the H-1B program.”
The proposed regulation “would be the biggest changes to the H-1B program since 1990,” when the visa was overhauled by Congress, Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, told Bloomberg Law.
The agency could block entry-level jobs from the program while redefining “employer-employee relationship” to severely curtail staffing companies’ access to the visas.”
Inserting the otherwise innocuous phrase “Best and the Brightest” (“B&B”) within this proposed rule does nothing to alleviate the suspicion with which it is met. This is understandable, considering that for the last 1.5 years this Administration has tasked USCIS with issuing “pop goes the weasel” style policy changes and multiple “reinterpretations” of existing laws and guidance. The ultimate result has been a targeted effort to reduce the use of H-1Bs visas by Indian IT professionals and their employers. IT jobs paying Level 1 prevailing wages and common occupational classifications such as Computer Programmers and Computer Systems Analysts now face an almost automatic presumption of ineligibility. Third-party job site consulting assignments are scrutinized more heavily and are more likely to be denied. Deference is no longer given to extensions of previously approved H-1B cases, even if there have been no changes in employment. The standard of evidence in filing H-1Bs seems to have risen overnight from the “Preponderance of the Evidence” to “Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt”.
As a result of USCIS’s recent changes to the H-1B program, Requests for Evidence and denial rates for IT workers have increased nationwide. But this new proposed policy promises to make matters even worse, if that’s possible.
USCIS Can Now Deny Work Visa and Green Card Applications Without Providing an Opportunity to Correct
What Is It?
- On July 13, 2018, USCIS issued new guidance regarding adjudicator discretion to deny a request for an immigration benefit without first issuing a Request for Evidence (RFE) or a Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID).
- The new policy makes it easier for USCIS to deny an application or petition without first issuing an RFE or NOID, by restoring “full discretion” to do so. For example, rather than giving the person the opportunity to fix what might be a simple filing error, adjudicators can deny a benefit if any of the required initial evidence is missing from the filing.
- Prior USCIS policy limited adjudicators’ ability to deny a case without first giving the applicant or petitioner an opportunity to respond. A June 3, 2013 memo instructed adjudicators to issue an RFE if initial evidence was missing or if the evidence submitted fell short of the applicable standard of proof, unless the adjudicator determines there is “no possibility” that additional evidence might cure the deficiency.
- The July 13, 2018, policy supersedes the 2013 guidance and takes effect on September 11, 2018.
Who Is Impacted?
- All applicants and petitioners who file immigration benefit applications with USCIS, including applications for naturalization, family-based immigrant petitions, temporary work visa petitions, immigrant petitions filed under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and permanent residency (“green card”) applications, on or after September 11, 2018, will be impacted by this new policy.
- Immigration law is already unforgiving but this will take it to a new level. Applicants and petitioners who do not have a lawyer to advise them will feel this most heavily. They could now face harsh consequences in the form of a denial of their immigration benefit application if they inadvertently make an innocent mistake on the application or misunderstand an evidentiary requirement.
Why Is This Bad Policy?
- The new policy imposes harsh consequences on individuals by making it easier for USCIS to deny an application without first providing an opportunity to correct an innocent mistake, submit a missing piece of evidence, or provide an explanation that would substantiate eligibility for the immigration benefit.
- Petitioners and applicants will be forced to re-submit their benefits requests, which for all means having to repay steep immigration fees and for some means losing employment, travel opportunities, and/or their place in the heavily backlogged visa queue.
- When you couple this new policy with a June 28, 2018 memo mandating USCIS to issue Notices to Appear (NTA) in far more immigration cases than ever before, even more individuals could be shuttled into immigration court removal proceedings.
- Read together, USCIS could deny an immigration benefit application without first issuing an RFE or NOID, and if the individual is no longer maintaining status at the time of denial, USCIS may issue an NTA to place the individual in removal proceedings.
- These policies will have devastating effects on all types of immigration benefits applicants, including high-skilled workers, families, students, and survivors of domestic violence and other crimes.
- This is the latest effort to shift USCIS away from its service-oriented mission and turn it into another enforcement component of DHS, contrary to the will of Congress, and to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which mandated USCIS focus on benefits adjudications and leave immigration enforcement to CBP and ICE.
- This new policy memorandum is another brick in the administration’s invisible wall that is slowing and restricting legal immigration to the United States by making it harder for immigrants to apply legally for immigration benefits.
- By making the legal immigration process more burdensome and uncertain, the new policy will harm U.S. citizens seeking to sponsor their relatives through the family-based system, individuals seeking asylum and humanitarian protection in the United States, permanent residents applying for naturalization, and U.S. companies seeking to hire and retain top talent from across the globe.
- An RFE is a written notice issued by USCIS to request missing initial or additional evidence from applicants or petitioners who have filed for an immigrant benefit.
- A NOID is a written notice issued by USCIS notifying the applicant or petitioner of the agency’s intent to deny the immigrant benefit requested and providing the applicant or petitioner the opportunity to explain why a denial is not merited.
USCIS announced today that it is extending the previously announced temporary suspension of premium processing for cap-subject H-1B petitions and, beginning 9/11/18, will be expanding this temporary suspension to include certain additional H-1B petitions. The suspension is expected to last until 2/19/19.
Trump administration indicates that it will terminate Work Permits (EADs) for H-4 Spouses of H-1B Workers
USCIS Turns Away Highly Valuable Revenue Stream by Temporarily Suspending Premium Processing for FY2019 H-1B Cap Petitions
“The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) most recent cost and schedule baseline, approved in April 2015, indicates that its Transformation Program will cost up to $3.1 billion and be fully deployed no later than March 2019. This is an increase of approximately $1 billion with a delay of more than 4 years from its initial July 2011 acquisition program baseline. In addition, the program is currently working to develop a new cost and schedule baseline to reflect further delays. Due to the program’s recurring schedule delays, USCIS will continue to incur costs for maintaining its existing systems while the program awaits full implementation. Moreover, USCIS’s ability to achieve program goals, including enhanced national security, better customer service, and operational efficiency improvements, will be delayed.…Given the history of development for the Transformation Program and the subsequent commitment of additional resources for a new system, it is more important than ever that USCIS consistently follow key practices in its system development efforts. For example, the program has already reported realizing risks associated with deploying software that has not been fully tested, such as system bugs, defects, and unplanned network outages. If the agency does not address the issues GAO has identified in prior work, then it will continue to experience significant risk for increased costs, further schedule delays, and performance shortfalls.”
USCIS fired another broadside into the H-1B IT Consulting Industry with yesterday’s Policy Memo PM-602-0157 entitled “Contracts and Itineraries Requirements for H-1B Petitions Involving Third-Party Worksites”. The policy memo is effective February 22,2018 onwards and will – no surprise here – create even more obstacles for Petitioners of H-1B workers who will be employed at one or more third-party worksites (in other words, U.S. IT Consulting companies employing H-1B workers).
In summary, the memo calls for increased scrutiny on H-1Bs cases involving third-party consulting assignments (despite the fact that since 2010’s Neufeld Memo, establishing an approvable H-1B for third-party consulting cases has always been extremely difficult, with USCIS often requiring, in my opinion, the Petitioner to establish its case beyond the legally required preponderance of the evidence standard). The memo warns that USCIS will require additional end-client contracts/statements and other documentation, perhaps even with the initial petition itself. Even if the Petitioners can overcome these additional burdens, USCIS warns that it will only grant an approval through the duration established (this likely means more one year approvals versus three year). This specific reference to a shortened H-1B duration is a consistent theme underscoring several USCIS policy changes since Matter of Simelio Solutions, I assume, to increase the complexity, cost and inconvenience relating to hiring H-1B workers.
The memo also burdens H-1B Petitioners with establishing eligibility for two cases per H-1B employee: the memo includes a formalized restatement of a policy USCIS’ RFE’s had already adopted in the past few months: even if an H-1B petition is approved, when an extension of said petition is filed (1-3 years later), the Petitioner will be required to affirmatively provide evidence that it complied with the terms and conditions of the past duration of H-1B employment.
USCIS’ H-1B Policy Memo makes it clear that it intends to keep beating the U.S. IT Consulting Industry like a rented mule. Is what it actually means to focus on “Merit Based” Immigration? Has no one deliberated on the only logical implications of this short-sighted (and presumably political) action? Not only are such actions negating our own global leadership in the STEM fields, but most of the IT jobs that could be filled by H-1B consultants (who are paying U.S. taxes), could and would easily be outsourced abroad, because we are not producing sufficient numbers of American STEM graduates.