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Does USCIS interpret its regulations consistently and correctly?

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Non-immigration case before SCOTUS could change immigration law

In December of last year, the US Supreme Court agreed to review Kisor v. Wilkie, a case that could have a major impact on immigration law. At issue is the degree of deference a court must accord an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation.

How much deference courts should afford agencies in interpreting their own regulations is a central question in administrative law. It determines how much an agency is allowed to stray from the original wording of a regulation it promulgates before it becomes necessary to issue a new regulation.  

It is dangerous to grant agencies unfettered discretion based on the assumption that their personnel will wisely and fairly carry out their duties. Changing presidential administrations often result in new agency directors and the likelihood that political beliefs will change how existing regulations are interpreted.  

If an agency seeking to revise a regulation follows the legal requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), there will be notice of proposed rulemaking and a comment period to identify any issues. There’s also a published regulatory history from which to glean meaning and intent. Too often, however, federal agencies, rather than comply with the APA, seek to regulate through policy interpretation memoranda.

On its face, Kisor v. Wilkie has nothing to do with immigration law. In 2006, James Kisor a Vietnam War veteran reopened a claim for disability benefits, citing new evidence that supported a diagnosis of PTSD. While the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) agreed with the diagnosis and approved the 2006 claim, it declined to grant him retroactive benefits based on his initial 1983 claim, asserting that he had failed to present “relevant” service records required under VA regulations governing reconsideration of benefits claims. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit deferred to the VA’s interpretation of its own regulation and found in the agency’s favor.

In the context of immigration, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is the federal agency that oversees lawful immigration to the United States. Under current case law, significant deference is granted to USCIS’ interpretation of its own regulations. This deference has allowed the agency to change certain visa programs over time, often without issuing new regulations but instead relying on policy memoranda to implement what increasingly seems to be an agenda driven by White House politics rather than good policy.

For example, President Donald Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” 2017 executive order, which, among other things, directed DHS, in coordination with other agencies, to review immigration-related policies, led to USCIS modifying many of its immigration policies in 2017 and in 2018, oftentimes by the mere publication of a memo or a press release rather than by going through the APA’s required process. Dentons’ immigration team covered several of these:

  • In October 2017, USCIS issued a policy memorandum reversing the burden of proof and eliminating the prior practice of deferring to previous approvals in the adjudication of petitions to renew H, L and other non-immigrant visas. The idea was that USCIS would accept the original determination as correct and would not review all the visa requirements again. With the elimination of this practice, visa holders merely petitioning for an extension now have to prove every criteria applicable to their visa category, even though USCIS already decided that they met such criteria. Effectively, extensions now require the same level of documentation as the original petition. This change has led to extensions being denied, thus creating confusion among alien workers.
  • In April 2018, USCIS updated its webpage for Optional Practical Training Extension for STEM Students (STEM OPT), providing that the training experience of STEM OPT workers may not be conducted at the place of business or worksite of the employer’s clients or customers.
  • In May 2018, the USCIS changed the way it calculates the accrual of unlawful presence for nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors (F, J and M visas, including F-2, J-2 and M-2 dependents). The changes increased the likelihood that individuals in these nonimmigrant visa categories would have problems with future immigration benefits. (See our previous posting “Stricter unlawful presence rules for foreign students and exchange visitors”).
  • In May 2018, USCIS revised its Policy Manual, announcing it would no longer count the jobs created for US workers through tenant occupancy of EB5 properties, which effectively reduced the amount of immigrant investor funds available to create jobs for US workers. (See our previous posting “No more EB5 job creation through tenant-occupancy models: New USCIS policy reduces availability of immigrant investor funds to create jobs for American”).
  • In November 2018, USCIS published a new policy memorandum explaining how to calculate the 12 months of employment abroad, a key requirement under the L-1 intracompany transfer visa program. (See our previous posting “How to count to 12: USCIS clarifies L1A visa requirements”).
  • In November 2018, DHS published its mid-year regulatory agenda, which included a proposed rule to revoke the H-4 employment authorization final rule. If adopted, the proposed rule is expected to become effective in the first half of 2019 and would impact all of the more than 100,000 individuals currently holding an H-4 employment authorization document. (See our previous posting “Proposed end of H-4 employment authorization likely to affect over 100,000 families”).

While USCIS’ frequent and often far-reaching policy changes created lots of business for lawyers in 2018, the agency’s unpredictability and inconsistent application of the law has created a tremendous burden on US employers and their foreign-national employees and families, as well as for US business developers seeking foreign investment and foreign investors and families.  

Critics of the deference principle have argued that it effectively allows agencies such as the USCIS to write overbroad and substantively vague rules with the expectation that they can fill in any gaps later using interpretive rules, unchecked by notice and comments. They are urging the Supreme Court to reverse the current precedent favoring judicial deference, which would force USCIS to issue clearer and more detailed regulations, thus providing  more agency transparency and accountability. The Supreme Court will hear Kisor v. Wilkie in the spring—oral arguments have not yet been scheduled—and will likely make a ruling later this year.

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