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.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is continuing to implement the June 28, 2018, Policy Memorandum (PM), Updated Guidance for the Referral of Cases and Issuance of Notices to Appear (NTAs) in Cases Involving Inadmissible and Deportable Aliens (PDF, 140 KB).
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.”
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 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.
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.
USCIS Resumed Premium Processing H-1B Cap Petitions Subject to the Fiscal Year year (FY) 2018 Cap on September 18, 2017
WASHINGTON — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) resumed premium processing today for all H-1B visa petitions subject to the Fiscal Year year (FY) 2018 cap. The FY 2018 cap has been set at 65,000 visas. Premium processing has also resumed for the annual 20,000 additional petitions that are set aside to hire workers with a U.S. master’s degree or higher educational degree.
H-1B visas provide skilled workers for a wide range of specialty occupations, including information technology, academic research, and accounting. When a petitioner requests the agency’s premium processing service, USCIS guarantees a 15-day processing time. If the 15- calendar day processing time is not met, the agency will refund the petitioner’s premium processing service fee and continue with expedited processing of the application. This service is only available for pending petitions, not new submissions, since USCIS received enough petitions in April to meet the FY 2018 cap.
In addition to today’s resumption of premium processing for H-1B visa petitions subject to the FY 2018 cap, USCIS previously resumed premium processing H-1B petitions filed on behalf of physicians under the Conrad 30 waiver program, as well as interested government agency waivers and for certain H-1B petitions that are not subject to the cap. Premium processing remains temporarily suspended for all other H-1B petitions, such as extensions of stay.
USCIS plans to resume premium processing for all other remaining H‑1B petitions not subject to the FY 2018 cap, as agency workloads permit. However, remaining petitioners may submit a request to expedite their application if they meet the specific agency criteria. USCIS reviews all expedite requests on a case-by-case basis, and requests are granted at the discretion of the office leadership.
USCIS will release future announcements when we begin accepting premium processing for other H-1B petitions, not subject to the FY 2018 cap.
USCIS announced that it has completed data entry of all FY2018 H-1B cap-subject petitions selected in the computer-generated random process. USCIS will now begin returning all H-1B cap-subject petitions that were not selected.
Major Policy Shift: USCIS Rescinds Guidance on H-1B Computer Related Positions without Notice or Due Process on the Eve of the H-1B Fiscal Year Cap with 200,000+ I-129 applications enroute to USCIS for delivery by April 7, 2017 – the Eligibility of an H-1B Petition for IT Workers will now Increasingly be based on its LCA Wage Level (read: LCA Level 1 Wages=Problem)
On March 31, 2017 USCIS issued a policy memorandum that superseded and rescinded a 12/22/00 memorandum with guidance on H-1B computer related positions issued by the NSC. This abrupt change coincidentally uproots established H-1B guidance and processes without notice or due process on the eve of the H-1B Fiscal Year Cap with 200,000+ I-129 applications enroute to USCIS for delivery by April 7, 2017.
The practical impact of this memo will be to increase Requests for Evidence and Denials on the thousands of H-1B petitions filed on behalf of IT professionals, and those with a Level 1 wage marked on their LCA/I-129 petitions are at heightened risk. The memo is in line with USCIS’ desire to place a greater emphasis on requiring IT Petitioners to list a greater than Level 1 wage on the LCA. The same concept seems to have been behind the holdings in several recent Administrative Appeals Office decisions denying IT positions on the basis of LCA Level 1 wages. AAO Decision Examples 1, 2 and 3 (PDFs).
Though Petitioners are not prohibited from paying an H-1B employee more than what is listed on the corresponding LCA, and frequently do, their H-1B petitions may now be denied because the USCIS appeared to have suddenly recalled that “Prevailing Wage Determination Policy Guidance” issued by the DOL (which provides a description of the wage levels) indicates that a Level 1 wage rate is generally appropriate for positions for which the Petitioner expects the Beneficiary to have a basic understanding of the occupation. A Level 1 wage rate indicates:
USCIS has issued a fact sheet on the automatic extensions of EADs provided by the “Retention of EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 Immigrant Workers and Program Improvements Affecting High-Skilled Nonimmigrant Workers” final rule, which went into effect on January 17, 2017. The fact sheet provides additional information to employers and EAD applicants including information regarding I-9 completion.
USCIS has published a final rule to modernize and improve several aspects of certain employment-based nonimmigrant and immigrant visa programs. USCIS has also amended regulations to better enable U.S. employers to hire and retain certain foreign workers who are beneficiaries of approved employment-based immigrant visa petitions and are waiting to become lawful permanent residents. This rule goes into effect on Jan. 17, 2017.
Among other things, DHS is amending its regulations to:
- Clarify and improve longstanding DHS policies and practices implementing sections of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act and the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act related to certain foreign workers, which will enhance USCIS’ consistency in adjudication.
- Better enable U.S. employers to employ and retain high-skilled workers who are beneficiaries of approved employment-based immigrant visa petitions (Form I-140 petitions) while also providing stability and job flexibility to these workers. The rule increases the ability of these workers to further their careers by accepting promotions, changing positions with current employers, changing employers and pursuing other employment opportunities.
- Improve job portability for certain beneficiaries of approved Form I-140 petitions by maintaining a petition’s validity under certain circumstances despite an employer’s withdrawal of the approved petition or the termination of the employer’s business.
- Clarify and expand when individuals may keep their priority date when applying for adjustment of status to lawful permanent residence.
- Allow certain high-skilled individuals in the United States with E-3, H-1B, H-1B1, L-1 or O-1 nonimmigrant status, including any applicable grace period, to apply for employment authorization for a limited period if:
- They are the principal beneficiaries of an approved Form I-140 petition,
- An immigrant visa is not authorized for issuance for their priority date, and
- They can demonstrate compelling circumstances exist that justify DHS issuing an employment authorization document in its discretion.
Such employment authorization may only be renewed in limited circumstances and only in one year increments.
- Clarify various policies and procedures related to the adjudication of H-1B petitions, including, among other things, providing H-1B status beyond the six year authorized period of admission, determining cap exemptions and counting workers under the H-1B cap, H-1B portability, licensure requirements and protections for whistleblowers.
- Establish two grace periods of up to 10 days for individuals in the E-1, E-2, E-3, L-1, and TN nonimmigrant classifications to provide a reasonable amount of time for these individuals to prepare to begin employment in the country and to depart the United States or take other actions to extend, change, or otherwise maintain lawful status.
- Establish a grace period of up to 60 consecutive days during each authorized validity period for certain high-skilled nonimmigrant workers when their employment ends before the end of their authorized validity period, so they may more readily pursue new employment and an extension of their nonimmigrant status.
- Automatically extend the employment authorization and validity of Employment Authorization Documents (EADs or Form I-766s) for certain individuals who apply on time to renew their EADs.
- Eliminate the regulatory provision that requires USCIS to adjudicate the Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, within 90 days of filing and that authorizes interim EADs in cases where such adjudications are not conducted within the 90-day timeframe.