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Stricter unlawful presence rules for foreign students and exchange visitors

Individuals in the United States on F, J and M visas (including F-2, J-2 and M-2 dependents) who fail to maintain their status will start accruing unlawful presence earlier, potentially spelling trouble for future immigration benefits, according to new US rules.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on Friday May 11, 2018, that the agency is changing the way it calculates the accrual of unlawful presence for nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors. The changes increase the likelihood that individuals in these two nonimmigrant visa categories will have problems on future immigration benefits.

Non-US citizens can be barred from obtaining visas, entering the US, and obtaining immigration benefits based on extended periods of unlawful presence in the US. If the individual accrues more than 180 days (but less than 1 year), he or she may be barred from re-entry for 3 years. Unlawful presence greater than 1 year can result in a 10-year bar.

The new policy, which becomes effective August 9, 2018, provides that nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors will start accruing unlawful presence either:

(1) the day after the visa holder no longer pursues the course of study or the authorized activity, or the day after they engage in an unauthorized activity; or

(2) the day after they complete the course of study or program, including any authorized practical training plus any authorized grace period.

In addition, visa holders start accruing unlawful presence on:

(3) the day after their I-94 expires; or

(4) the day after an immigration judge orders their deportation or removal of the individual.

Under the previous policy, an F, J or M visa holder would start accruing unlawful presence the day after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified the visa holder that the individual violated his or her nonimmigrant status while adjudicating a request for another immigration benefit. Accruing unlawful presence under this criterion required notification by the USCIS to the visa holder of the violation.

This change is very important. There has always been a clear distinction between violating status and being unlawfully present, with only the latter situation having severe consequences for visa holders. A person could be in violation of status and not be unlawfully present. For instance, a foreign student on an F visa could drop out of school or perform unauthorized work and not accrue unlawful presence.

This situation is very specific to nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors because their Form I-94 and admission stamp usually list duration of status (or D/S) and not a specific date. Typically, F, J and M visa holders can maintain status as long as they remain enrolled or continue to participate in the activity for which they were admitted in the first place. The situation is different from other nonimmigrant visas, such as H-1B and L-1A visas, where unlawful presence generally starts accruing on the day after their visa stay permission on Form I-94 expires.

Under the new rule, even foreign students and exchange visitors who violate status unintentionally and without being aware of it, will start accruing unlawful presence—and may be in for an unpleasant surprise when they later apply for a new visa.

This announcement comes less than a month after USCIS updated its web page regarding the optional practical training (OPT) extension for international students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). USCIS now specifically provides 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. Combined with last week’s policy change, such an arrangement could cause the visa holder to accrue unlawful presence and later trigger a re-entry ban and visa denial.

We encourage employers who currently employ workers on F, J or M visas or who plan to do so, to carefully review the applicable rules, especially if you intend to subsequently apply for a new visa (e.g., H-1B, EB1, EB2) on their behalf.

For more information, please contact your Dentons lawyer and see the USCIS website for additional information.

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Stricter unlawful presence rules for foreign students and exchange visitors

Graduation: Time to request post-graduation work permission for foreign students

It’s April. Graduation is just around the corner. International students who are in F-1 status must consider their post-graduation plans. Now is the time to work with foreign student advisors and the USCIS for those seeking to work and gain practical training after graduation.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a period of temporary employment in the US that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. An F-1 student may be authorized 12 months of OPT after completing a degree from a US university. Eligible students must apply within 30 days of the foreign student advisor (known to USCIS as the “designated school official” or “DSO”) for OPT into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record system.

The application time window is only open from 90 days before to 60 days after completing the degree. The latest possible start date for the OPT is 60 days after completing the degree. F-1 students must make sure to submit their applications, with application fee, within the time window. OPT will start after USCIS approves the Form I-765 and issues an employment authorization document (EAD).

An employer is not required when OPT is requested, but the student will need to find work soon or OPT will be lost and the student will need to leave the US if he or she is without work for more than 90 days after OPT is granted. F-1 students on OPT must report employment status to their DSOs, who will then update their SEVIS records. The reporting is important because a student with approved OPT but without current employer information in SEVIS is considered unemployed. This can have serious ramifications on the student’s future immigration opportunities. We are seeing an increasing number of requests from USCIS regarding OPT employment information when the student later applies for the H-1B work visa that is widely used by F-1 students to work in the US beyond OPT.

OPT can be extended by 24 months for F-1 students who graduate with a bachelor’s or higher degree in an eligible science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field from an SEVP-certified school accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the US Department of Education. Eligible students must apply before the end of the OPT as indicated on the EAD.

During the STEM OPT period, the permitted unemployment period is 60 days. Unlike the initial OPT, where employer involvement is minimal, STEM OPT requires that the employer enroll in USCIS’ E-Verify employment eligibility verification program. Dentons lawyers guide employers on the E-Verify registration process and advise on compliance issues.

Also, the employer must agree to employ the student for a minimum of 20 hours per week and to provide the student with formal training and learning objectives. To fulfill this requirement, the student and the employer must complete and sign Form I-983, which must explain how the training opportunity has a direct relationship to the student’s qualifying STEM degree. Dentons lawyers assist employers in developing STEM OPT-compliant training programs.

During the STEM OPT extension period, students must report to their DSOs every six months and supply updated information regarding their employment. If an employer terminates a student’s employment or if the student leaves the job, the employer has to report in either situation to the relevant DSO within five business days. STEM OPT students must submit annual self-evaluations and report to their DSOs regarding the progress of their training. Both student and employer must report to the relevant DSO any material changes to the training plan. Reporting and record-keeping are important in case the student applies for H-1B later.

For more information about STEM OPT, please contact your Dentons lawyer and see the USDHS website for additional information.

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Graduation: Time to request post-graduation work permission for foreign students

New Form I-9 and E-Verify User Manual for US employers

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a revised Form I-9 and E-Verify User Manual. Employers should use the new Form I-9 for all new hires and for re-verification of current employees when their temporary employment authorization expires.

Form I-9 is used for verifying the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for employment in the United States. All employers must ensure proper completion of Form I-9 for each individual they hire for employment in the United States, citizens and noncitizens included.

USCIS, which is an agency under the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), operates the E‑Verify program, an Internet-based system that allows any US employer to electronically verify the employment eligibility of a newly hired employee.

E-Verify is a voluntary program. However, employers with federal contracts or subcontracts that contain the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) E-Verify clause are required to enroll in E-Verify as a condition of federal contracting. E-Verify is also a requirement for employers of F-1 foreign students employed under STEM Optional Practical Training. Further, employers in states that have enacted legislation require some or all employers to utilize E-Verify as a condition of business licensing.

The new Form I-9 is available at the USCIS website. The new E-Verify User Manual is available for download here.

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New Form I-9 and E-Verify User Manual for US employers

New national interest waiver ruling

greencard

 

Increased immigration opportunities for individuals of exceptional ability

There are increased opportunities for individuals of exceptional ability to immigrate to the United States based on new national interest waiver rule after the US Department of Homeland Security issued on December 27, 2016, designated the Matter of Dhanasar decision as precedent.

Summary

The new rule means that USCIS may grant a national interest waiver if the petitioner demonstrates:

(1) that the foreign national’s proposed endeavor has both (a) substantial merit and (b) national importance;

(2) that he or she is well positioned to advance the proposed endeavor; and

(3) that, on balance, it would be beneficial to the United States to waive the requirement of a job offer and thus of a labor certification.

The employment-based second preference immigrant visa category (EB2) includes individuals of exceptional ability who can self-petition to immigrate.  That means they sign their own immigrant petition and do not need a sponsoring employer. Further, the normal requirement of an employer obtaining an alien employment certification from the US Department of Labor can be waived on a showing that the waiver is in the national interest.

Analysis

The new rule states that “substantial merit” may be in a range of areas, citing business, entrepreneurialism, science, technology, culture, health, or education, research, pure science, and the furtherance of human knowledge as examples.  Showing the potential to create significant economic impact may be favorable, but is not required.

“National importance” focuses on potential prospective impact, rather than geographic terms.  National or global implications are relevant, but even a ventures that focus on one geographic are of the US may qualify.

The requirement that the immigrant be well positioned to advance the proposed endeavor focuses on the immigrant.  Relevant factors include education, skills, knowledge, and record of success in related or similar efforts, plan for future activities, and the interest of others (e.g., potential customers, users, investors).

The benefit to the US is an analysis of both:

  • Impracticality of securing a job offer or alien employment certification; and
  • Benefit of the immigrant’s contributions to the US warrants foregoing the alien employment certification.

Matter of Dhanasar

The immigrant in Matter of Dhanasar held a PhD in Engineering, as well as Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics. His research focused on hypersonic propulsion systems and computational fluid dynamics.  He developed a validated computational model of high-speed air-breathing propulsion engine and a novel numerical method of calculating hypersonic air flow.  He intended to work in air and space propulsion systems R&D at university, as well as supporting teaching activities in STEM disciplines.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services denied the immigrant petition, but that decision was reversed on appeal to the Administrative Appeals Office.  The AAO found there was both substantial merit and national importance to the immigrant’s work due to potential use in military and civilian applications, advances to scientific knowledge, and American national security and competitiveness applications.  The high level of accomplishment to date by the immigrant was found to show benefit to the US even assuming that other qualified US workers are available.

Matter of New York State Department of Transportation

The new ruling vacates the AAO’s decision in Matter of New York State Department of Transportation, which had been in effect since 1998.  That case severely limited self-sponsored EB2 due to a restrictive interpretation of the national interest waiver requirements, which was often misinterpreted by the USCIS to require the very labor market test that was intended to be waived.

Impact

The new ruling makes the self-petition EB2 national interest waiver much more widely available.  As a result, we anticipate a significant increase in filings, including in some cases where the self-petition EB1 extraordinary ability immigrant visa category might be in consideration.  On the other hand, the EB2 category remains oversubscribed with long waiting periods for immigrants born in mainland China and India.  These individuals will continue to shun EB2 in favor of the more stringent requirements of EB1.

The complete text of Matter of Dhanasar can be found here.

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New national interest waiver ruling