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Does USCIS interpret its regulations consistently and correctly?

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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Does USCIS interpret its regulations consistently and correctly?

How to count to 12: USCIS clarifies L1A visa requirements

The rules regarding qualifying employment abroad, required for an L-1 intracompany transfer visa, are clarified, if not changed, in a new US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) policy memorandum (PM).

Dated November 15, 2018, USCIS PM-602-0167, states that:

  • All visa requirements must be satisfied as of the date the agency receives the L-1 visa petition;
  • The employee must be physically outside the US for the required 1 continuous year of employment; and
  • In certain cases, time spent in the US will not break the continuity required, but that time will not be counted towards the required 1 year.

The PM does not create new law or effect a change in policy. Its stated purpose is to clarify existing rules.

The requirement that a visa petitioner meet all legal requirements at the time the petition is filed is longstanding. It already was not possible to file a defective petition and then cure that defect with facts that occur subsequent to filing. That is why L-1 petitions could never be filed before an employee completed the full 12 months of employment abroad.

The PM repeats the agency’s regulation that brief trips to the US for business or pleasure do not interrupt the required 1 continuous year of employment abroad. The regulations never defined “brief” and the PM, regrettably, doesn’t either. There is an example in the memo of brief trips totaling 60 days during the 1 year. It would have been better if the PM stated whether, for example, 1 trip for 60 days is brief, or 2 trips for 30 days, etc. As a result, the situation is neither improved nor worsened by the PM’s issuance.

Even though the law already clearly states that only days when the employee is physically outside the US may be counted, the PM states that time spent in the US working for a qualifying organization does not count, and updates Chapter 32.3 of the Adjudicator’s Field Manual to reflect this needless clarification.

For the full text of the Policy Memo, can be found at the USCIS website.

Please contact the authors for more information about this PM, the L-1 intracompany transfer visa or other business visas for the US or any other of the many countries where Dentons guides clients on business and cross-border mobility matters.

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How to count to 12: USCIS clarifies L1A visa requirements

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

US government immigration fee increase proposed

On May 4, 2016, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) published notice of a proposal to increase certain government filing fees and create a new fee. The average increase is 21 percent, but the highest increases are for the visas used by American businesses to bring skilled workers to the United States, immigrant investors creating jobs for Americans and immigrants acknowledged to have extraordinary ability.

A 42 percent increase is proposed for the Form I-129 used for the most common work visas, including H-1B professional, O-1 extraordinary ability, and L-1 intracompany transfer visas, as well as E-1 treaty trader, E-2 treaty investor and E-3/FTA H-1B1/TN treaty professional visas processed in the United States rather than at an American consular post or Preflight Inspection Unit abroad. A 42 percent increase is also proposed for the Form I-140 used for EB1, EB2 and EB3 employment-based immigrant visas.

If 42 percent seems outrageous, the increase proposed for the Form I-526 required for an EB5 immigrant investor creating at least 10 jobs for American workers is 145 percent.

Family-based immigration fares better, with only a 27 percent increase proposed for the Form I-130 used by United States citizens and lawful permanent residents to sponsor certain close relatives to immigrate. The Form I-485 required for immigrants who process through the USCIS instead of an American consular post abroad is proposed to increase only 16 percent.

The USCIS explains that the fee increases are required to recover costs for their services and to maintain adequate service. Current service is far from adequate. Although Congress mandated USCIS processing timelines in the American Competitiveness of the 21st Century Act of 2000 (AC21), almost 16 years later the agency continues to consistently fail to meet the standards set by law.

AC21 set 30-day processing times for most employer-sponsored nonimmigrant visas and 180-day processing times for most employer-sponsored immigration. Processing times tend to be at least twice as long or worse. Instead of 30 days, five months is the processing time currently reported for Form I-129 H-1B visa extensions, for example, and the USCIS California Service Center reported that as of February 29, 2016, the agency was currently processing Form I-485 immigrant applications received before May 17, 2014!

The agency has not increased fees in many years. Proposed fee increases usually become final fee increases without significant, if any, change—most likely later this summer.

There is a 60-day comment period. Guidance on how to submit comments is in the notice. The full text of the USCIS notice can be found online at the Federal Register.

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US government immigration fee increase proposed

Changes to the Tier 2 and Tier 5 immigration regime

On March 24, 2016, the UK government responded to the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) review of Tier 2 policy and has announced numerous changes to Tier 2 policy going forward.

For Tier 2 (General) migrants:

  • Minimum salary threshold: increases to £25,000 in autumn 2016 and to £30,000 for experienced workers, while maintaining the current threshold of £20,800 for new entrants.
  • Waiver of Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT): in cases where the migrant will be relocating with a high-value business to the UK or, potentially, supporting an inward investment into the UK.

For Tier 2 (Intra Company Transfer [ICT]) migrants:

  • Single route for ICT migrants: all ICT migrants must qualify under a single route with a minimum salary threshold of £41,500. The Home Office will have closed the Skills Transfer and Short Term visa categories to new applications. Graduate trainees will have their own route with a lower salary threshold of £23,000 with an increased limit of 20 places per company per year.
  • New Immigration Health Surcharge: from autumn 2016, the charge will be extended to all transferees.
  • High earners’ threshold: reduced from £155,300 to £120,000 for migrants looking to stay in the UK for a period between five and nine years.
  • From April 2017, migrants paid more than £73,900 will not be required to have one year’s experience.

For both Tier 2 (General) and Tier 2 (ICT) routes:

  • New Immigration Skills Charge: employers must pay a levy designed to encourage them to invest in training UK employees. The levy is set at £1,000 per year per Tier 2 migrant from April 2017. A reduced rate of £364 per person per year will apply to small and charitable sponsors.

Several other recommendations made by the MAC on January 19, 2016, will not be implemented by the UK government. Accordingly, the government has confirmed the following:

  • ICT overseas service: migrants will not be required to have worked for their overseas company for 24 months, which would have been an increase from the current requirement of 12 months.
  • Tier 2 (General) in-country switching applications from Tier 4 will not be subject to the RLMT.

Finally, it should be noted that the Home Office has introduced the following changes which affect Tier 2 and Tier 5 sponsors:

  • Record-keeping duties: for new migrant employees, sponsors must keep copies of references, Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, job descriptions and qualifications.
  • RLMT: when a sponsor advertises a vacancy on Universal Jobmatch, it must take a screenshot on the date the vacancy is first advertised.
  • Genuineness test: if the Home Office refuses an entry clearance or leave to remain application because it does not consider the job role to be genuine, it may suspend the Sponsor License to carry out further investigation.

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Changes to the Tier 2 and Tier 5 immigration regime

LMIA Exempt Work Permit Applications – New Procedure

Effective February 21, 2015, there will be changes to the work permit application process for categories that are currently exempt from obtaining a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) and employer specific. The changes follow amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations focused on employer compliance in the employment of foreign workers.

As a result of the regulatory amendments, most work permit applications will now require a 2 step process:

Step 1. Either an LMIA application to Service Canada OR a new procedure involving an application form to be submitted to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) for LMIA exempt categories (Form IMM 5802 – Offer of Employment to a Labour Market Impact Assessment Exempt Foreign National) with an additional $230 employer compliance fee.

Step 2. Work permit application.

This new procedure is applicable to all LMIA exempt work permits that are employer specific including work permit extension applications, visa office applications, port of entry applications. The new procedure will apply to most LMIA exempt work permit applications including work permits under NAFTA, intra-company transfers, PNPs, signficant benefit, etc. (Note: step 1 is not required for open work permit applicants, however, open work permits will be subject to an additional $100 privilege fee).

The new IMM 5802 Form and online fee payment (through their current CIC online fee payment site) will be available on Wednesday, February 18, 2015. The new form will require general corporate information about the employer (including contact information), the terms of the offer, information supporting the LMIA exemption and an attestation by the employer on the terms of the offer of employment.

Third party representatives will be able to submit the IMM 5802 Form for employers as long as the employer contact has signed a Use of Rep form (IMM 5476). The process requires that the IMM 5802 be completed by employers and submitted with the $230 payment to CIC.

Once the IMM 5802 Form is submitted to CIC, a confirmation will be generated by CIC. This confirmation along with a copy of the IMM 5802 Form and the $230 fee payment must be provided to the foreign worker to make an application for a work permit (i.e. at the visa office, online or at POE etc.)

There is not an advance “adjudication process” for the IMM 5802 Form before the work permit application is processed. For example, although proof that the IMM 5802 Form was submitted is required for an applicant to apply for a work permit at the POE, it was indicated that this could be done 5 minutes prior to arriving at the port of entry, as long as the applicant had a copy of the submitted IMM 5802 Form and payment confirmation with their work permit application.

There will also be a process for receiving a refund of the $230 employer compliance fee (and $100 privilege fee) if a work permit application is refused

More information will be posted by CIC this week and the link to the CIC site can be found at: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/tools/temp/work/admissibility/specific.asp

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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LMIA Exempt Work Permit Applications – New Procedure