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Green card processing times for employment-based immigration expected to increase

 

Delays and increased processing times can be expected for employer-sponsored immigrants seeking green cards, based on a recently announced change by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS).

In a press release dated August 28, 2017, USCIS stated that the agency plans, effective October 1, 2017, to begin interviewing employment-based immigrants. This will impact employer-sponsored professionals, skilled workers, executives, manager, and outstanding professors and researchers, as well as individually sponsored immigrants with extraordinary or exceptional ability.

The press release states: “Previously, applicants in these categories did not require an in-person interview with USCIS officers in order for their application for permanent residency to be adjudicated. Beyond these categories, USCIS is planning an incremental expansion of interviews to other benefit types.”

This statement is inaccurate. In fact, the agency used to personally interview all immigrants. Decades ago, the policy changed and employment-based immigrants were only interviewed if a review of the application showed a need for an interview or as a random, quality-control measure. The primary reason for the change was to devote agency resources to more important tasks, after the agency determined the incidence of fraud detected by in-person interviews was not significantly greater than for applications processed without interviews. In addition, waiving the interview process allowed the agency to consolidate processing at regional centers where government workers were better trained in the special requirements for such immigration. Finally, remote processing at regional centers without direct public contact minimized the inconsistent processing experienced at local offices, as well as the incidence of fraud and corruption by government workers in direct contact with the public.

As Sir Winston Churchill famously stated: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Local interview processing times vary, but the new policy is likely to increase by more than four months the time it takes USCIS to process applications for adjustment of status and maybe much longer where local offices with significant immigrant populations, such as Silicon Valley, are doing the processing.

By the way, the State Department has always interviewed all immigrants. Although going this route is more costly in terms of travel and lost US work days, more immigrants and their employers may want to consider this option if USCIS processing times spiral out of control.

The full text of the agency’s press release can be found at the USCIS website and the Executive Order can be found at the White House website.

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Green card processing times for employment-based immigration expected to increase

Supreme Court allows travel ban

The US Supreme Court partially lifted preliminary injunctions that had blocked President Trump’s revised executive order suspending US entry by foreign nationals from six, rather than the previous seven, mostly Muslim countries. However, the Court carved out an exception for foreign nationals who have a “bona fide relationship” with a person or entity in the United States,” raising such questions as “What is a bona fide relationship?” and “What is an entity in the US?” that will likely be the subject of further court action.

Supreme Court allows travel ban

The US Supreme Court partially lifted preliminary injunctions that had blocked Executive Order No. 13780, signed by President Donald J. Trump in March 2017 (EO-2), banning travel to the US for citizens of six countries. The Supreme Court scheduled a full hearing of the case for October 2017.

“Bona fide relationship” exception

The Supreme Court found that the preliminary injunction shall remain in place and the travel ban will not impact foreign nationals who have a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” Further, refugees will continue to be allowed to enter the US, subject to the 50,000 person cap on refugee admissions, except that the cap cannot be used as a means to bar an individual with a bona fide relationship with the US.

The Supreme Court defined “bona fide relationship” as either (with respect to individuals) “a close familial relationship” or (with respect to entities), a relationship that is “formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course.” What constitutes a sufficiently close familial relationship is likely to be the subject of further court action.

As for what constitutes a sufficiently established relationship with an entity, the Supreme Court provided three examples:

  • Students admitted to attend university in the US
  • Workers who have accepted an offer of employment from a US company
  • Lecturers invited to the US for a speaking engagement

The travel ban will apply to individuals whose relationship with an entity was formed to purposefully circumvent the ban.

It is worth noting that EO-2 in its original form applies only to the new issuance of visas, and not the US entry of individuals who have already been issued visas, green cards or asylum/refugee status.

Also, there is a chance that the Supreme Court will not have to hear the case in its entirety in October. If EO-2 goes into effect as scheduled by the Trump administration, the 90 day temporary ban will conclude at the end of September, several days before the Supreme Court begins its term. This would, then, remove any controversy over the legality of that piece of the order.

Citizens from these countries impacted

Citizens from the following countries are detrimentally impacted:

  • Iran
  • Libya
  • Somalia
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Yemen

EO-2 does not apply to citizens of other countries who merely visited the listed countries. Further, it does not apply to citizens of these six countries who are dual citizens and use the passport of a non-affected country to apply for a visa and enter the US.

When does the ban start?

In a June 14 memorandum, President Trump directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of State and other relevant agencies to wait 72 hours from the release of the Supreme Court decision before banning refugees and travelers from the six affected countries to “ensure an orderly and proper implementation” of the changes.

Background

During his first six months in office, President Trump signed two travel ban executive orders. The first, Executive Order 13797 (EO-1), issued on January 27, 2017, took a number of steps, including:

  • Suspending for 90 days the entry of foreign nationals from seven mostly Muslim countries identified as presenting heightened concerns about terrorism and travel in the US [1]
  • Suspending for 120 days the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), during which an adequacy review is to be undertaken
  • Reducing to 50,000 per year the total number of refugees that could be admitted to the United States, starting in fiscal year 2017
  • Suspending indefinitely admission of refugees from Syria

EO-1 was quickly blocked  by the US District Court for the Western District of Washington, which issued a nationwide temporary restraining order. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied an emergency motion by the US government to stay the district court order pending appeal. In response, the government rescinded EO-1 and went back to the drawing board.

On March 6, 2017, President Trump signed EO-2, which closely mirrored the directives in EO-1, but was intended to correct some its perceived errors, including:

  • Reducing the reach of the 90-day temporary suspension of entry to foreign nationals from six (rather than seven) mostly Muslim countries, with Iraq no longer included [2] and with a case-by-case waiver of the entry bar.
  • Directing the Secretary of DHS to undertake a 20-day global review of whether foreign governments provide sufficient information about nationals applying for visas.

EO-2 was immediately challenged in court, which challenges led to prompt nationwide preliminary injunctions by the US District Court for the District of Maryland and (as stated above) the Western District of Washington, which were then appealed to the US Courts of Appeal for the Fourth and Ninth Circuits, respectively.

The Fourth Circuit concluded that the EO-2 ban on entry from the six named countries was primarily motivated by religious considerations and, as such, violated the First Amendment. In that case, the preliminary injunction only applied to the suspension of entry of foreign nationals from particular countries. The 120-day ban on USRAP and the quota on total refugee immigration would still be in force.

The Ninth Circuit, meanwhile, found that EO-2 exceeded the president’s authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and, on that basis, upheld the injunction with regard to the entirety of EO-2.

The federal government appealed both decision to the Supreme Court, certiorari was granted, and the two cases were consolidated and oral argument scheduled for October Term 2017. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, heard the government’s application to stay the aforementioned injunctions.

Dentons will continue to issue further information as it becomes available.

[1] Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen

[2] Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen

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Supreme Court allows travel ban

Adult dependent relatives—judicial review challenge

The Immigration Rules pertaining to visa applications ‎made by adult dependent relatives of UK citizens were changed in July 2012. According to the Rules, an “adult dependent relative” must be a close family member of the UK sponsor, i.e., a parent, grandparent. The Rules also require that:

  • The applicant must—because of age, illness or disability—require long-term personal care to perform everyday tasks.
  • The applicant must be unable—even with the practical and financial help of the UK relative—to get the required care in the country where he or she is living, either because it is not available and there is no person in that country who can reasonably provide it, or because it is not affordable.

There was concern at the time of the Rules change that the Home Office (the government department responsible for immigration, passports, counter-terrorism and crime policy), had tightened the Rules too much.

Home Office statistics have borne out the validity of that concern. Since the Home Office changed the Rules, the average number of successful applications each year decreased by at least 93 per cent!

BritCits, an advocacy group, challenged the current requirements. The organization, which campaigns for fair family immigration rules that don’t divide families or force British citizens into exile, brought a judicial review application in the High Court of Justice (BritCits vs. SSHD) challenging the legality of the Rules. It argued that the Rules defeated the purpose of the law under which they were made; that the Rules raised expectations without any real possibility of those expectations being met; and that the Rules interfered with family life.

The High Court issued a judgment dismissing the judicial review application. BritCits requested and was granted permission to appeal. This was dismissed by the Court of Appeal.

Applicants applying in this category will have to make applications with the knowledge that their chance of success is exceptionally low and that despite a recent challenge to the Immigration Rules, they will remain as promulgated. Applicants will continue to have to pull together as much evidence as they can to show that they meet the requirements. Although the Rules require scrutiny of the available care in the adult dependent relative’s home country, the Home Office will consider whether the care is “reasonable” for the applicant and “of the required level” for the applicant. This can include the psychological and emotional needs of elderly parents, for example. Taking such an approach could mean the difference between an application for an adult dependent relative being accepted or rejected.

If BritCits pursues its challenge to the Supreme Court we will of course keep you informed.

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Adult dependent relatives—judicial review challenge

USCIS begins return of unselected H-1B petitions

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on May 3, 2017 that it completed data entry of all fiscal year 2018 H-1B cap-subject petitions selected in its computer-generated random selection process, and that it began returning all H-1B petitions that were not selected.

The agency did not provide a definite time frame for returning these petitions, but the unselected FY 2017 H-1B petitions were returned by the end of June 2016. The same timetable seems likely this year.

Petition approvals for selected cases have already started being sent. Because of the large volume, processing times vary greatly and petition approvals are likely to continue through the summer and even into the early fall, as was the case in prior years.

For the full text of the USCIS announcement can be found at the USCIS website.

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USCIS begins return of unselected H-1B petitions

‘Hire American’ executive order

End of days—or much ado about nothing?

The visa rules that allow US employers to temporarily hire certain foreign professionals is either going to change dramatically…or not, and there will have been much ado about nothing.

President Trump signed the “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order (EO) on April 18, 2017. This EO does not change any existing law or regulation. It merely calls on the relevant federal agencies to make changes. This means employers can anticipate more, not less, government regulation and new agency policies, limited by US immigration law made by Congress.

Here is the text of the immigration-related components of the EO:

Sec. 5. Ensuring the Integrity of the Immigration System in Order to “Hire American.” (a) In order to advance the policy outlined in section 2(b) of this order, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall, as soon as practicable, and consistent with applicable law, propose new rules and issue new guidance, to supersede or revise previous rules and guidance if appropriate, to protect the interests of United States workers in the administration of our immigration system, including through the prevention of fraud or abuse.

(b) In order to promote the proper functioning of the H-1B visa program, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall, as soon as practicable, suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.

It is clear that the EO makes no new rule or change in law, unlike previous EOs like the travel bans. This EO merely instructs the relevant agencies to propose new rules and issue guidance, if appropriate, with the stated goal of protecting US workers and preventing fraud/abuse and suggesting H-1B reforms.

With so little information in the EO, what can employers expect. Limited insights can be gleamed from the backgrounder issued the night before this EO was issued, when the White House held a press briefing.

Enforcement

The EO merely instructs the agencies to issue proposals and guidance to prevent fraud or abuse. The backgrounder does not do much more than explain that the Administration seeks the strict enforcement of all laws governing entry into the US of foreign workers. The EO calls on the Departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security and State to take prompt action to crack down on fraud and abuse. The backgrounder states:

And then again, you add that on top of the across-the-board reform process for guest worker and visa programs in general to make sure that they’re strictly complying with all the rules, laws, and protections for American workers, again, which there are many, but there hasn’t been this kind of systematic review. And this is something that the President, if you look, actually promised that he would have the Department of Labor go and do this kind of systematic review and take these kinds of actions.

We will monitor agency actions carefully to see how this develops, but employers are well advised to review the immigration-related records keeping and compliance systems. Annual affirmative audits and trainings are best practices that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency looks to when considering whether to reduce fines and penalties for violators. Employers are well-advised to consult with counsel on what steps can be taken now, as well as expected changes that can be planned for.

H-1B visa random selection and wages

The EO instructs these agencies to suggest reforms to ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries. The backgrounder says that these agencies are expected to report back on proposed ways to change how new H-1B visa petitions are allocated.

Existing rules allocate the limited annual supply of new H-1B visa petitions for most US employers on a random-selection basis. The EO suggests that the foreign worker’s skills and compensation be taken into consideration. Ironically, this would give preference to requests from employers who pay foreign workers more than the average paid to Americans.

The backgrounder acknowledges that some immigration changes can only be made by Congress. Just like the Obama Administration, however, the Trump Administration seems willing to bypass Congress and act unilaterally and not wait for Congress to act.

From the backgrounder:

But you could be looking at things on the administrative side, like increasing fees for H1B visas.  You could be looking at things like if we could adjust the wage scale—a more honest reflection of what the prevailing wages actually are in these fields. Obviously, taking a more vigorous stance, which various—in the Department of Justice do with respect to enforcing gross and egregious violations of the H1B program. You could see potential—and again, we’ll have to get a full legal analysis and review from all the departments, but right now the lottery system disadvantages master’s degree holders. There’s ways that you could adjust the lottery system to give master’s degree holders a better chance of getting H1Bs relative to bachelor’s degree holders. There’s a lot of possible reforms that you could do administratively in addition to a suite of legislative actions.  

There is no change in the H-1B random selection process, which is already concluded for fiscal year 2018. Changes can reasonably be anticipated for fiscal year 2019 filings in April 2018. What skills, wage offers, or other factors will impact the likelihood of selection remains to be determinedassuming that the status quo changes at all.

We will continue to share more information and analysis as the law evolves.

The full text of the EO is published on the White House web site; click here to read the backgrounder press release. To read the President’s remarks on signing the EO click here.

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‘Hire American’ executive order

New H-1Bs for 2018 are gone

 

US employer demand once again greater than limited supply

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) once again received more H-1B visa petitions (for professional workers) from US employers than the limited supply allocated by Congress for fiscal year 2018.

The agency reported receiving 199,000 petitions during the first five business days of April—37,000 fewer than last year—the first time in years that the number of petitions has fallen.

The selection process was completed on April 11, but the agency did not announce by what date all accepted petition fee receipts would be issued, unselected cap-subject petitions returned with the uncashed filing fee checks, and approval notices for granted petitions sent.

As in years past, USCIS will reject and return filing fees for all unselected petitions that are not duplicate filings. Last year, most returns were received by June.

Congress authorizes USCIS to granted 65,000 H-1B visa petitions per fiscal year, plus an additional 20,000 petitions earmarked only for foreign nationals who earned a graduate degree from an American university. FY2018 starts October 1, 2017. For both of these quotas, the demand was greater than the supply, but USCIS has not provided a breakdown for each.

Certain H-1B visas remain available and USCIS will continue to accept and process petitions to:

  • Approve H-1B status to an individual coming to work for an employer that is exempt from quota limitations—generally the US government, American universities and certain related or nonprofit organization
  • Approve H-1B status to an individual counted previously against the cap and who is not subject to the FY2018 cap
  • Extend the amount of time a current H-1B worker may remain in the United States
  • Change the terms of employment for current H-1B workers
  • Allow current H-1B workers to change employers
  • Allow current H-1B workers to work concurrently in a second H-1B position

The full text of the agency’s press release can be found at the USCIS website.

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New H-1Bs for 2018 are gone

Q. Do US border inspectors demand passwords and inspect phones and laptops?

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) searched 14,993 electronic devices during the six-month period between October 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017, according to an ‘agency press release issued on April 11, 2017. The press release did not reveal how many of those devices, if any, were seized as evidence.

The CBP’s numbers constitute a dramatic increase compared to the 19,033 searches of electronic devices conducted during the 12-month period commencing on October 1, 2015, and ending on September 30, 2016 (up from 8,502 searches during the prior 12 months).

The CBP’s border search authority is considered by the agency to require no warrant, a position that has been upheld in federal appellate courts. The CBP has stated that it adjusts the level of search activity to align with current threat information regarding terrorist activity, child pornography, violations of export controls and intellectual property rights and visa fraud.

“These searches, which affect fewer than one-hundredth of one percent of international travelers, have contributed to national security investigations, arrests for child pornography and evidence of human trafficking,” stated John Wagner, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations. “CBP officers are well trained to judiciously conduct electronic device searches and to protect sensitive information that may be encountered.”

The CBP has an information sheet, titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices,” which agents provide to travelers whose property is being searched detailing the various reasons individuals are selected for a search, including:

  • Travel documents incomplete
  • Does not have proper documents or visa
  • Previously violated one of the laws the CBP is charged with enforcing
  • Name matches that of a person of interest in one of the government’s enforcement databases
  • Randomly selected

The CBP advises that the agent retain a device, along with copies of any documents or information in the possession of the person who was searched relating to immigration, customs or other enforcement matters, only if such retention is consistent with the privacy and data protection standards of the system in which such information is retained. Otherwise, if after reviewing the information, there exists no probable cause to seize it, the CBP states that the agency return the device and not retain copies of any documents seized.

The information sheet explains:

“If CBP determines that the device is subject to seizure under law—for example, if the device contains evidence of a crime, contraband or other prohibited or restricted items or information—then you will be notified of the seizure as well as your options to contest it through the local CBP Fines, Penalties and Forfeitures Office.”

The information sheet also addresses privacy and civil liberties protections during the conduct of border searches.

The full text of the April 11 press release is available at the US CBP website and the published agency’s information sheet can be found here.

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Q. Do US border inspectors demand passwords and inspect phones and laptops?

Form EEA – permanent residence applications

Applicants use Form EEA (PR) to apply for, replace or renew a document certifying permanent residence or a permanent residence card.

On April 12, 2017, the Home Office updated its guidance notes detailing what an applicant should send with his or her application. See here for full details. The guidance notes now include a table of examples of people in different circumstances. This acts as a helpful guide for applicants thinking about the evidence they might need to provide specific to their own circumstances.

The documents and evidence sent must be originals. The Home Office makes an exception for online applicants who have their passports verified, copied and sent to the Home Office by a local authority participating in the European Passport Return Service. All documents not in English or Welsh must be accompanied by an official English translation provided by a qualified translator.

Dentons will issue further information as it becomes available.

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Form EEA – permanent residence applications

Tier 2 immigration skills charge – another fee to pay

As part of the government plans to reduce Britain’s reliance on migrant workers, from  April 6, 2017 employers may have to pay an immigration skills charge of £1,000 per employee.

The skills charge will apply to a sponsor of a Tier 2 worker assigned a certificate of sponsorship in the “General” or “Intra-Company Transfer” route and who applies from:

  • outside the UK for a visa
  • inside the UK to switch to this visa from another
  • inside the UK to extend their existing visa

The skills charge does not apply if you are sponsoring:

  • a non-EEA national who was sponsored in Tier 2 before April 6, 2017 and is applying from inside the UK to extend their Tier 2 stay with either the same sponsor or a different sponsor
  • a Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer) graduate trainee
  • a worker to do a specified PhD level occupation
  • a Tier 4 student visa holder in the UK switching to a Tier 2 (General) visa
  • Tier 2 family members (“dependants”)

As the charge applies to the sponsor and not the individual, if a sponsor has paid it in respect of an individual who then seeks to change sponsor, the new sponsor will also be required to pay the levy.

A lower rate of £364 per certificate of sponsorship applies for smaller sponsors and charities. You will usually be considered a small business if:

  • your annual turnover is £10.2 million or less
  • you have 50 employees or fewer

The charge is in addition to all other application fees. Its purpose is to cut down on the number of businesses taking on migrant workers and to incentivize employers to train British staff to fill those jobs.

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Tier 2 immigration skills charge – another fee to pay

Travel ban executive order – the saga continues

The US Departments of State and Homeland Security both issued statements on February 6, 2017, confirming that the government has suspended the implementation of key provisions of President Trump’s travel ban on nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, and that visas that had been provisionally revoked are now valid for travel and may be used, once again, to come to the US, subject to the normal laws and procedures that existed prior to the President Trump’s executive order dated January 27, 2017.

This action comes as a result of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in State of Washington and State of Minnesota v. Trump, denying a US Department of Justice request for an immediate stay of a nationwide injunction granted by a US federal district court judge in Seattle in response to Washington State’s request for a temporary restraining order immediately halting implementation and enforcement of the immigration ban.

The EO initially barred the entry to the United States of lawful permanent residents with green cards, and imposes a 90-day suspension of admission for immigrant and nonimmigrant visa holders, and refugees and passport holders from the seven countries. Soon thereafter, the Department of State issued an urgent notice suspending visa issuance to citizens of those countries. The EO also suspended the resettlement of refugees from all countries to the US for 120 days, and bans Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Previous injunctions had been issued in federal courts in Massachusetts and New York. Those orders temporarily enjoined federal agencies from removing people with approved refugee applications, valid visas and the nationals from the seven Muslim countries. The Seattle court’s decision is the broadest and has the largest impact.

Citizens from these countries are impacted

Nationals from the following countries are detrimentally impacted:

  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Libya
  • Somalia
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Yemen

The EO does not apply to citizens of other countries who merely visited the listed countries. Further, the US Customs and Border Protection Agency has stated that the EO does not apply to citizens of these seven countries, if they are dual citizens and use the passport of a non-affected country to enter the US.

Travel guidance

Nationals from the seven listed countries, including dual citizens traveling with the passport of another country and US permanent residents, may wish to delay travel to the US until the details of the implementation of the EO are more clear, even if they already hold a visa to enter the United States. If in the United States already, they may wish to defer departure as they may not be allowed to return or they may find themselves going through a more lengthy than usual secondary inspection on arrival in the US. There are also reports of airline personnel being understandably confused regarding the status of the EO, with resulting inconvenience to travelers.

Background

On February 4, President Trump tweeted the following about the Hon. James L. Robart, the district court judge who issued the nationwide order. “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”

Criticism of the tweet and the EO was immediate and widespread. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said, “The President’s hostility toward the rule of law is not just embarrassing, it is dangerous. He seems intent on precipitating a constitutional crisis.” Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said: “We fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.”

Broad media coverage of the confusion caused by the uncertainty surrounding the EO’s fate continues. Dentons continues to receive emails and calls from employers who are considering cancelling all travel for employees carrying passports from the impacted countries, including dual citizens and US lawful permanent residents. Similar concerns have been voiced by citizens of many countries that are not listed in the EO but are worried that their country might be next. Due to the reciprocal nature of diplomatic relations, it is likely that US passport holders traveling to the seven countries will experience similar difficulties upon their arrival. Iran, for its part, has said, it would stop US citizens entering the country in retaliation to Washington’s visa ban.

Dentons will issue further information as it becomes available.

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Travel ban executive order – the saga continues