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More H-2B Visas Allocated But Only For Returning Workers

female scientistMy wife was listening to the news the other day about the border crisis (yes, it’s real, but certainly not in the way our President describes it) and suggested that I write about it. She’s right, I should write about it. And I will. But first, my New Years Eve debacle has one further (and hopefully final) chapter to it. (I feel like I need to finish the story.) I will be brief.

So, it’s bad enough that as the clock struck midnight on New Years Eve many of my colleagues and I were sitting at our offices or at our homes in front of our computers preparing to file temporary labor certification applications with the U.S. Department of Labor (“USDOL”) for our clients that participate in the H-2B visa program. As the New Year rang in, there were applications for approximately 97,800 workers that were about to be filed with the USDOL for a total of 33,000 H-2B visa numbers, and because of the “unprecedented volume of simultaneous system users”, the USDOL’s computer system completely hemorrhaged and shut down.

Eventually, a week later, the USDOL fixed their computers, and all the applications were filed. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (“USCIS”) announced that it had received enough petitions to meet the congressionally mandated H-2B cap for the second half of the government’s fiscal year for 2019. That means if an employer was not able to file its petition with USCIS on or before February 19, 2019, which was the final receipt date for new cap-subject H-2B worker petitions requesting an employment start date before October 1, 2019, then the employer was out of luck for 2019. Some of my clients were affected.

Fast forward to last week. The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the USDOL announced, after consultation with each other and after weighing several factors, including whether U.S. workers would be harmed, that an additional 30,000 H-2B visas would be allocated for the remainder of FY2019. Sounds great, right? Well it is, sort of.

The problem is, the additional visas will be available only to applicants who have held H-2B status in at least one of the past three fiscal years (2016, 2017 and 2018). These are called “returning workers.” So that means foreign nationals who have not participated in the H-2B visa program in the past three fiscal years, or even ever, are precluded from coming being sponsored by U.S. employers who have established a need for temporary workers (e.g., seasonal, peak load, etc.). Again, I have clients that are affected.

Case in point. I have two clients that are not only participating themselves for the first time in the H-2B visa program, but had identified a number of workers that were qualified to do the work their companies needed them for, but none of those foreign workers had ever participated in the H-2B visa program before.

Of course they could try to identify other workers that will meet the guidelines of the governments new rule (which has not even been published yet). But that takes time and can be expensive. And for what purpose? If the government is going to provide additional visas for the H-2B program, what sense does it make to limit the availability of those visas to foreign nationals who have been issued H-2B visas in the past? Seems pretty arbitrary to me?

The H-2B program is an absolutely necessary program for many, many employers who have seasonal or peak load business needs. The process for participating in it, however, is unnecessarily cumbersome, now seemingly arbitrary, and desperately needs to be reformed. Please, Congress, get to work and fix this.

H-1B Visas in the Wake of “Buy American, Hire American”

imm_6My annual ritual.  The start of the H-1B nonimmigrant visa filing season is once again upon us.  And once again, immigration practitioners around the country are having increasingly more difficult conversations with their clients who wish to hire foreign nationals into what are called “speciality occupation” positions.  Last year, after President Trump signed an Executive Order on April 18, 2017 entitled “Buy American, Hire American” (“BAHA”), the conversations became very different from previous years.  This year it seems even worse.  Let me explain.

The purported purpose of the “Hire American” portion of BAHA is to create higher wages and employment rates for U.S. workers, and to protect their economic interests by rigorously enforcing and administering the laws governing entry of foreign workers into the United States. President Trump specifically highlighted the H-1B visa program, directing the Secretaries of State, Labor, and Homeland Security, as well as the Attorney General, to suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled and highest-paid foreign workers.

As always, a (reminder) primer is in order. The H-1B nonimmigrant visa is a temporary visa that allows employers to petition for highly educated foreign professionals to work in “specialty occupations” (e.g., architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts). These positions typically require at least a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent for entry into the field.

Notwithstanding what you read in President Trump’s “fake” tweets, before an employer can file an H-1B petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”), the employer must first take steps to ensure that hiring the foreign worker will not harm U.S. workers.  First and foremost, employers must attest, on a Labor Condition Application (“LCA”) filed with and certified by the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”), that employment of the H-1B worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.

An executive order cannot modify existing statutes or regulations. However, BAHA does clearly direct the above-referenced agencies who administer immigration programs to approach their administration obligations from an enforcement standpoint rather than as providing a service to those parties that they regulate. Consequently, a number of agency memoranda have either been issued or repealed since BAHA was signed by the President.

In 2018, practitioners saw how BAHA would play out in real time.  Quite simply, as a result of BAHA, employers, their current / prospective employees and their attorneys are being besieged by requests for evidence (“RFE’s”) from USCIS. According to The Wall Street Journal, “the administration is more closely scrutinizing applications for the high-skilled visa program known as H-1B, sending back more than one in four applications between January and August [of 2017] via “requests for further evidence,” according to data from [USCIS], which administers the program. A year earlier, fewer than one in five were sent back.”[1]

In terms of my own practice, and anecdotally what I am hearing from virtually every colleague of mine that practices in this area, these RFE’s are making requests that we’ve never seen before, including questioning the prevailing wage classification and level selected on the underlying LCA associated with the H-1B petition, and also questioning whether the position requires at least a Bachelor’s degree in a specific educational specialty.

Specifically, USCIS is taking the position that a Level 1 wage, as a general matter, cannot support a claim that the offered position is in a “specialty occupation.”  Alternatively, the RFE’s often claim that if a position is sufficiently complex to be considered a “specialty occupation”, then it cannot have a Level 1 wage associated with it. Some RFE’s make both arguments and then ask the employer-petitioner to essentially prove the impossible.

And, where at first we starting seeing these RFE’s in specific types of case (e.g., software developers, computer systems analysts), we are now seeing them issued in a wider array of occupations, including engineers (e.g., civil, mechanical, industrial, etc.), lawyers, dentists, teachers, physicians, and accountants/auditors.

Mercifully for our clients we have been able to successfully overcome these RFE’s, but now without a lot of extra time and effort put into the case that, given the existing regulatory framework and case law, seems absolutely unnecessary.  These RFE’s have added substantial expense and uncertainty to the H-1B process. The result is that it discourages immigration without making any formal policy change.  This needs to change.

[1]http://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-administration-tightens-scrutiny-of-skilled-worker-visa-applicants-

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