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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

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

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

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

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

H-1B blast off countdown 2017

T minus 59 days. The countdown has begun.  The date is coming.  It will be here soon.

It is the biggest event of the year in United States immigration.

Hundreds of thousands will apply, but only a lucky few will be chosen. Employers keen to recruit and employ the best and brightest talent from around the globe to meet American business needs are already gearing up.  Professionals eager to pursue their career in the United States are updating resumes and collecting diplomas and reference letters. This program is not the best way for a country to succeed, but the United States Congress continues to lack the will and wisdom to change a law almost 25 years old.

Are you ready?

April 1, 2017, is the first day that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS) will accept new H-1B specialty occupation worker nonimmigrant visa petitions by employers for foreign professionals.  It is important for global mobility and human resource managers to start work now to secure preliminary Department of Labor approvals, foreign degree evaluations, etc., to be ready to file the petition for an April 1 receipt date.

Limited supply

Only a limited number of new H-1B visas are accepted each year due to legal quota restrictions. Every year, 65,000 new H-1B visa petitions can be granted, of which 6,800 are set aside for citizens of Chile and Singapore under free trade agreements with those countries. To the extent there were unused free trade agreement H-1Bs, those are added to the quota for the next fiscal year. There is an additional allocation of 20,000 new H-1B visa petitions that can be accepted if the foreign professional in question earned a graduate degree from a university in the United States.

Not all H-1B visa petitions are subject to numerical limits. Individuals already holding H-1B visas are not counted against the quota, and petitions filed by institutions of higher education or related or affiliated nonprofit entities, nonprofit research organizations or governmental research organizations are exempt from the limits. And H-1B workers performing labor or services in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and Guam may also be exempt from the H-1B cap, provided their employers file the petition before December 31, 2019. Employers may not file a petition or an extension request for an employee more than six months before the employee’s intended start date.

Overwhelming demand

Last year, the USCIS received so many new H-1B visa petitions in the first week of April that the agency ended the application window on April 7. Approximately 236,000 new petitions were received, as compared to 233,000 in the prior year. As the regulations mandate, officers then selected—at random—which envelopes to open, and returned the rest unopened with the government filing fees. Only then did the agency begin the often long process of approving or denying the selected petitions on the merits of eligibility.

This year, the USCIS will once again receive more than it is allowed to accept. Again, the agency will randomly decide which envelopes to open and which to return unopened. The likelihood of a petition being selected in April 2017 is much lower than last year, taking into consideration the current state of the economy, the relatively low rate of American unemployment in typical H-1B specialty occupations, and the labor needs of US employers.

The countdown begins now (download dates directly into your Outlook)

T minus 59 days (February 1):  Start working with legal counsel now. Identify current and prospective employees who will need new H-1B visa petitions.

T minus 44 days (February 15):  By now, you and legal counsel should have requested the labor condition application certification from the Department of Labor.  Employers new to the process or who have not filed recently will need to create the appropriate accounts with the Department of Labor. Because the USCIS relies on Dunn & Bradstreet data (DUNS) as part of its employer background verification process, it is important for employers to create or update the company’s DUNS records to avoid inconsistencies with H-1B visa petition filings.

T minus 31 days (March 1):  Have all the required USCIS forms and supporting documents been signed and filing fee checks prepared?  There is still some time left to get last minute details completed, but this is when it gets very hectic. Government systems often become overloaded and delays at the Department of Labor for late filings are common.

T minus 1 day (March 31):  Envelopes should be properly addressed and delivered to the express service of choice with next business morning delivery instructions.

T minus 0 (April 1):  Just like at NASA ground control, this is the stage in the process where all the hard work resulted in successful delivery of the visa petition and you have to wait for the USCIS to announce whether the petition is selected or returned—usually within 3 weeks or so.

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H-1B blast off countdown 2017

Entry to the United States barred for certain passport holders?!

US President Donald Trump issued an executive order delaying the entry to the United States of lawful permanent residents with green cards, immigrant and nonimmigrant visa holders, refugees and passport holders from seven countries. The order, dated January 27, 2017, became effective immediately. Soon thereafter, the US Department of State issued an urgent notice suspending visa issuance to citizens of those countries.

On January 28, 2017, injunctions were issued in federal courts in Massachusetts and New York. The orders enjoin federal agencies from removing people with approved refugee applications, valid visas and others from the seven countries.

How the government is reacting

In a January 29, 2017, press release, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that it will continue to enforce all of President Trump’s executive orders. Later that same day, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency, which is part of DHS, issued a statement deeming the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest. The result is to allow lawful permanent residents to return to their homes in the US, absent significant derogatory information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare.

Citizens from these countries are impacted

Nationals from the following seven countries are detrimentally impacted:

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

The order does not apply to citizens of other countries who merely visited the listed countries.

Travel Guidance

Nationals from the seven listed countries, including dual citizens traveling with the passport of another country, may wish to delay travel to the United States until the details of the implementation of the executive order is 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.

Background

The executive order is reported to have been issued without advance consultation with the agencies charged with its implementation, including DHS and the Department of State.

President Trump stated on January 28 that the travel ban is “working out very nicely.”

That said, there is broad media coverage of the widespread confusion that resulted, not only in the general public, but also at airports, airlines, border crossings, etc. There are reports of detentions of new arrivals at airports and public protest in many American cities. I have had a number of emails and calls from client employers canceling travel for employees carrying passports from the impacted countries, including dual citizens and United States lawful permanent residents. Due to the reciprocal nature of diplomatic relations, it is likely that US passport holders traveling to these seven countries will experience similar difficulties.

The situation remains very fluid. Press Secretary Reince Priebus stated on January 29, 2017, that the executive order will no longer apply to lawful permanent residents, and the USCIS issued its confirming statement mentioned above.

Dentons will issue further information as it becomes available.

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Entry to the United States barred for certain passport holders?!

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

Important new regulations for immigrant workers

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published important new regulations for immigrant workers on November 18, 2016. The regulations become effective January 17, 2017.

Summary

The agency has amended its regulations to provide benefits to those in the employment-based first (EB1), second (EB2) and third (EB3) immigrant visa categories and their employers. The agency’s stated goal is to improve processes and increase certainty for employers seeking to employ and retain such workers, provide greater job flexibility for those workers, and clarify relevant Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies.

New Rules

There are a number of new regulations, some of which adopt current agency policy and others that are new. The following are some of the most important ones.

For occupations in which a license is required (e.g., doctor, lawyer, etc.), the USCIS will grant the H1B visa for up to one year, if the only obstacle to license issuance is lack of a Social Security number.

For the purpose of counting the number of days spent in the US in H1B visa status towards the normal six-year limit, the USCIS will consider any twenty-four-hour period spent outside the US as one day, regardless of the reason for the absence.

A former H1B visa holder who is no longer in H1B visa status, and regardless of whether he or she is in the US or abroad, may seek an exemption from the normal six-year limit. The foreign worker must be otherwise eligible and the beneficiary of an approved EB1, EB2 or EB3 petition for whom the visa is not current under the quota system as of the date that the H1B petition is filed.

Lengthy adjudication delays of permanent resident status will not support an extension of H1B status beyond the normal six-year limit if the immigrant fails to file for permanent residence or an immigrant visa within one year of the visa becoming current under the quota system. If the visa becomes unavailable again, a new one-year period will be afforded when an immigrant visa again becomes available. The USCIS may also in its discretion excuse failure to timely file upon a showing that the failure was due to circumstances beyond the immigrant’s control.

Credible documentation that an H1B visa worker faced retaliatory action from the sponsoring employer regarding a violation of that employer’s H1B labor condition application obligations may be considered by the USCIS as grounds to grant an extension of H1B stay, or a change of status to another visa classification, notwithstanding the worker’s loss of, or failure to maintain, his or her H1B status.

The definition of “same occupational classification” for purposes of establishing the portability of immigrants to new jobs, has been modified to mean an occupation that resembles in every relevant respect the occupation for which the EB petition was originally granted. “Similar occupational classification” is now defined as an occupation that shares essential qualities or has a marked resemblance or likeness with the original occupation. This guidance is similar to what agency memoranda have already stated.

Employment eligibility verification regulations are amended to authorize employers to accept as proof of employment eligibility Form I-797C and also state that the original employment authorization document is automatically extended for up to 180 days. This is a new rule and will help employers.

Background

The US limits the number of employment-based immigrants annually, by both visa category and country of birth. The quota allocation set in 1990 has never been increased. The annual supply for most categories and countries of birth seems sufficient to prevent lengthy waiting periods; the greatest source of delay are USCIS and Department of Labor (DOL) agency processing times.

The most significant exceptions are for immigrants born in India and mainland China. So many employment-based immigrants born in those two countries are in the queue that waiting periods of for most immigrant visa categories now are many years.

Employer-sponsored EB visas tend to be for specific jobs, at specific work sites, with stated duties and compensation. In general, sponsoring employers and immigrant workers must intend after immigration is complete to work in the same job at the same work site with the same duties for the same (or similar) compensation.

Congress addressed this problem in the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act of 2000 (AC21). The USCIS (and its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service) issued implementing policy guidance, which has been clarified and revised over the years.

The lengthy processing delays were also a problem for H1B professional workers, since there is normally a limit of only six years of status. AC21 provided for extensions beyond the six-year limit.

The EB1 immigrant visa category includes individuals of extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researchers, and multinational managers and executives. The EB2 category is for professionals with advanced degrees and individuals with exceptional ability. The EB3 category is for professionals and skilled workers, while the EB3W category is for other workers in short supply.

Read the full text of the new regulations here.

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Important new regulations for immigrant workers

USCIS fee changes, effective December 23, 2016

Shocked

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has published a final rule adjusting the fee schedule for many immigration applications and petitions processed by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The new fee schedule will become effective on December 23, 2016. Applications and petitions postmarked or filed on or after that date must include the new fees.

As determined by DHS, adjusting the fee schedule is necessary to fully recover costs and maintain adequate service. This is the first adjustment in the last six years.

Under this final rule, DHS will increase fees by a weighted average of 21 percent; establish a new fee of $3,035, covering USCIS costs related to processing the employment-based immigrant visa, fifth preference (EB-5) Annual Certification of Regional Center, Form I-924A; establish a three-level fee for the Application for Naturalization, Form N-400; and remove regulatory provisions that prevent USCIS from rejecting an immigration or naturalization benefit request paid with a dishonored check or lacking the required biometric services fee until the remitter has been provided an opportunity to correct the deficient payment.

While the fees for some petitions will remain the same, others will see significant increases. 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.

The new fee schedule includes increased fee for the Form I-129 to $460 from $325. 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.

Fees for the Form I-140 used for EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 employment-based immigrant visas were increased to $700 from $580.

One of the highest increases is for the Form I-526 required for an EB-5 immigrant investor creating at least ten jobs for American workers. Form I-526 fee was increased to an outrageous $3,675 from $1,500.

Family-based immigration fees are better, with only a 27 percent increase, to $535 from $420, for the Form I-130 used by US 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 was increased only slightly, to $1,140 from $985.

For a full list of the new fees please visit the USCIS website.

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USCIS fee changes, effective December 23, 2016