INSIGHT INTO IMMIGRATION

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Immigration and the Impact of COVID-19 (4.0)

covid2Whether you’re from a red state or blue state, one thing is undeniably true, all politics aside: over 103,000 human beings have died in the United States since the end of February as a result of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (or COVID-19). That’s a massive amount of human loss in a very short period of time. I find that very hard to process.

Not that there’s any equivalency, there’s also been a vast amount of change in our personal and professional worlds. On the personal side, many if not most of us are working remotely, if we’re working at all, and our professional lives are now often interwoven with our personal lives as we manage work-life in a family setting. For some of us, that will soon be changing.

I have been fortunate to be able to go to an office every day. There’s no one else here. So while my work life is a bit lonely, I can say for sure that I am able to get work done without four boys running, yelling, complaining, laughing, and sometimes even crying in the background. Those of you who know me personally know that my wife is the mother of the year, every day of the year.

And what of my work? Immigration law is challenging enough in “normal” times, with the law itself, not to mention the myriad of changes that happen often daily. During this COVID-19 pandemic, however, the changes have not only been often, they’ve been dramatic as well.

Although the “real” news has reported the President’s Proclamation restricting immigrant visa issuance, as a practical matter, all visa processing by the Department of State (“DOS”), as well as the adjudication of many immigration benefits here inside the United States by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”), have practically stopped (or at least are now very delayed and backlogged). In addition, entry into the United States along our northern and southern borders, including by asylum seekers coming from the south (despite being told otherwise), has also been restricted. Thousands and thousands of low risk noncitizens are also in immigration detention despite the reported very high risk of COVID-19 transmission in jails, prisons, and federal detention centers that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) uses to hold noncitizens. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the suspension of almost all non-detained immigration court hearings, and has also limited the normal functioning of those other courts that remain open.

Any one of these changes would be dramatic for our clients in ordinary times. But all four of them at once? And during a pandemic when everyone is stressed out from being cooped up indoors for months, perhaps out of work, and perhaps also losing a family member to coronavirus?

Add to all this that President Trump, and his minions like Stephen Miller, have used the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue policy changes, mostly by regulation and proclamation, that his administration has failed to accomplish by legislation or in the courts during his presidency (e.g., eliminating the ability for noncitizens to pursue asylum at our southern border).

While we’re all impacted by COVID-19, I would argue that its impact on noncitizens, and particularly those who hold essential worker jobs, is far worse than the average person. Thus far Congress has at least endeavored to provide benefits or some form of relief to U.S. citizens and noncitizens who are lawfully in the United States. But many immigrant are affected differently (e.g., many immigrants are not eligible to receive direct payments and support, and many others are not able take advantage of the increased availability of health care services), and many noncitizens who are here in the United States, whether lawfully or otherwise, right or wrong, are the very essential workers that you and I rely on every day of our lives (e.g., health care workers, grocery store workers, dairy workers, and the list goes on and on).

These are stressful times. Both foreign and U.S. workers in all of our communities are suffering the impacts of COVID-19, whether economic or otherwise, and if large parts of the population are intentionally being excluded from the federal government’s economic support, this will have a widespread impact on everyone. We all deserve better.

Immigration and Covid-19: Take 3

covidSo between COVID-19 (2.0) and COVID-19 (3.0), President Trump signed a proclamation (not an executive order as many have reported) temporarily suspending the entry of certain immigrants into the United States in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. What exactly does this mean? Practically, not much. Most embassies and consulates around the world are working at drastically reduced operations and visa issuance has all been suspended in any event since mid-March. So why did he do it? Politics as usual.

First, some details. The President’s proclamation suspends the entry of any individual seeking to enter the United States as an “immigrant” who (a) is outside the United States on the effective date of the proclamation (the proclamation went into effect at 11:59 pm (ET) on April 23, 2020), (b) does not have a valid immigrant visa as of April 23, 2020, and (c) does not have a valid official travel document as of April 23, 2020, or issued on any date thereafter. The proclamation is in effect for sixty days.

The following individuals are exempt from the President’s proclamation: (a) lawful permanent residents (i.e., Green Card holders); (b) individuals, and their spouses and children, seeking to enter the U.S. on an immigrant visa as a physician, nurse, or other healthcare professional, to perform medical research or other work essential to combatting COVID-19, as determined by the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the Department of State (“DOS”); (c) individuals applying for a visa to enter the U.S. pursuant to the EB-5 immigrant investor visa program; (d) spouses and children under the age of 21 of U.S. citizens, including prospective adoptees on certain types of visas; (e) individuals who would further important U.S. law enforcement objectives (again, as determined by DHS and DOS); (e) members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their spouses and children; (f) Afghan and Iraqi nationals who were translators/interpreters or employed by the U.S. government and their spouses or children seeking entry pursuant to a Special Immigrant Visa; and (g) individuals whose entry would be in the national interest (also as determined by DHS and DOS).

But here’s the thing. As I alluded to at the outset, most routine visa services at U.S. embassies and consulates across the world have been suspended since March 20, 2020. (1) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) has, until at least June 4, 2020, suspended in-person services (although it does continue to accept and process applications and petitions, which are processed at its “service centers”, which are not accessible to the general public). The U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico are closed for non-essential travel until, at this point, at least May 20, 2020. And, with few exceptions, the entry of individuals who were in countries such as China, Iran, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, during the 14-day period immediately before their desired date of entry into the United States, has also been suspended. (2)

Interestingly, though for purposes here, individuals who hold nonimmigrant visas (i.e., temporary visas like tourist visas or some work visas) are not prohibited from coming to the United States under the Proclamation. Why not? The President’s proclamation requires a review of temporary visa programs within thirty days and seeks recommendations to stimulate the U.S. economy to ensure “the prioritization, hiring and employment” of U.S. workers. And there you have it. “It’s the economy stupid!”

In the face of all the criticism about how he personally has handled (or mishandled) the COVID-19 pandemic, I am surprised it took so long before he resorted to distraction, blame, and fearmongering. Instead of focusing on the public health crisis that we’re all dealing with on a daily basis, the President has cloaked the proclamation as a means to “put unemployed Americans first” amid the massive job losses that all workers (both U.S. and foreign born) are experiencing as a result of COVID-19. It’s nothing more than a political ploy. It’s fodder for his political base.

I have written about, and substantiated, on a number of occasions, that immigrants create jobs, are innovators and entrepreneurs, and meet important U.S. workforce needs. A study written by Madeline Zavodny, an economics professor at the University of North Florida, for the National Foundation for American Policy, concluded, “The results of the state-level analysis indicate that immigration does not increase U.S. natives’ unemployment or reduce their labor force participation. Instead, having more immigrants reduces the unemployment rate and raises the labor force participation rate.” (3)

When the proclamation was announced, and even days before with the lead-up, I was getting panicked calls from current and potential clients about what impact the President’s proclamation would have on their cases or situation. This is nothing more than a distraction to what I personally believe is the real issue. The President’s concern over the election.

I am not at all suggesting that our government should not be doing something to control the entry of any individual into the United States who may have been, during the 14-day period immediately before their desired date of entry into the United States, in an area that is severely impacted by COVID-19. Not at all. But the President’s policy of limiting immigrants from entry into the United States has no rational basis. He’s not saving American jobs; he’s also not making us any safer or more secure. To restore our country’s health, physically, mentally and economically, we need to keep our focus on moving forward together. We are stronger together.

The United States is facing a public health crisis, and a resulting economic crisis, unlike any that we have ever faced in our lifetimes. We need a better and more organized public health response. This will get our society back on track and our people back to work. Everything else, especially the President’s proclamation, is a distraction from this priority.

_______________________________

(1) U.S. embassies and consulates continue to provide urgent and emergency visa services as their resources allow. And, the DOS, at this point, continues to process visa applications for farm workers and medical professionals assisting with COVID-19.
(2) Importantly, asylum seekers are not prohibited from coming to the United States.
(3)Madeline Zavodny, “Immigration, Unemployment and Labor Force Participation in the United States,” National Foundation For American Policy, NFAP Policy Brief , May 2018.

The Invisible Wall

border wall.jpgI recently sat for an interview with a reporter who is doing a series of articles on changes in immigration policies with a specific focus on our immigration court system. As I was speaking with this person, our conversation veered outside that lane, and we started talking about changes in immigration policy more broadly. We’ve seen a lot over the past year, but since Donald Trump became our president, the changes in U.S. immigration policy, whether planned or otherwise, have been dramatic. It’s probably not surprising when you have someone like Stephen Miller being the puppeteer for the marionettes.

Some have called it the “invisible wall.” The what? Yes, the invisible wall. While the President has been very public about his desire to construct a physical wall on our Southern border, slowly but surely, he and his minions are quietly and deliberately restricting and slowing the pace of legal immigration by building an “invisible wall.” We’ve seen travel bans, extreme vetting directives, the slowing or stopping of the admission of foreign workers and entrepreneurs into the United States, the ending or reduction of programs for vulnerable populations, and, most recently, obstacles to the naturalization of foreign-born soldiers in the U.S. military.

The most significant change has been processing delays at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”). Most readers of this article are familiar with the H-1B nonimmigrant visa program which, for many employers, requires a petition to be filed on or about April 1 each year for a employment start date of October 1 of the same year. Well, I recently had a case for a client where we filed their petition on April 1, 2018, and their petition was “finally” approved in November, 2019. That’s a year and a half. I will grant you that this is an extreme example, but the point remains. Case processing delays and applications backlogs at USCIS are out of control. These unprecedented processing delays affect individuals, families, and American businesses throughout the nation.

Most of my personal practice involves employment and business-related immigration. I work with employers to facilitate their access to talent in what is now a very tight job market. I work with companies that are on the cutting edge of science; colleges and universities who are educating our future entrepreneurs and investors; and health care professionals in rural areas that supply health care to underserved communities. Processing delays and case unpredictability does not help businesses in my community and beyond solve their very real staffing needs and challenges.

In April, 2019, USCIS responded to a February 2019 letter sent by 86 Members of the House of Representatives who had expressed concern (and demanded accountability) about USCIS’s processing delays. In its response, USCIS revealed that in Fiscal Year (“FY”) 2018, the agency’s “gross backlog”, that is, its overall volume of delayed applications and petitions, reached 5,691,839 cases. That number is staggering, and according to USCIS, marks a 29 percent increase since FY2016 and a 69 percent increase since FY2014. What’s more, this backlog rose from FY2017 to FY2018 despite a substantial decline in application rates and an increase in its budget during that period. That’s right, USCIS had more resources with which to process fewer new cases, yet its gross backlog still grew. I’m sorry, what?
According to a recent article in the Washington Post, there an estimated 800,000 foreign nationals who are working legally in the United States who are also waiting for a green card. Most of those in the queue are Indian nationals. According to the article, an Indian national who applies for a green card today could expect to wait up to 50 years to receive it.

What about citizenship applications? Since 2016, the processing time for citizenship applications has almost doubled, increasing from about 5 ½ months to over 10 months as of March 31, 2019.

Lawyers are now more than ever taking matters into their own hands. While it used to be the case that lawyers waited to sue the government until a client’s application or petition was denied, or perhaps waited until a case was “outside normal processing times” to sue, but processing times are so out of whack immigration attorneys have no choice but to sue.

It’s difficult enough explaining the ins and outs of our immigration system and processes to clients. Tack on the substantial costs involved in pursuing some immigration benefits (without the prospect of litigation to simply move the case along), and top it off with significant delays, and you can see why many in Congress and the media have called the delays we’re experiencing as being at crisis levels. These delays and backlogs have real impacts on individuals, families and businesses. It impacts our overall economic growth. We deserve better.

As we usher out 2019 and bring in a new year (and a new decade), let’s resolve to pass meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform, be a lot more compassionate to those of our southern neighbors who are fleeing their home countries in search of a better and safe life, and work a little harder to poke some holes and even knock down that invisible wall that’s been erected over the past three years.

 

 

[1] “Historical National Average Processing Time for All USCIS Offices,” USCIS, March 2019, https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/historic-pt.

The Trump Administration’s New “Public Charge” Rule

boydadimmigrationrallyThere’s been no shortage of things to write about over the past two-and-a-half years, either substantively or otherwise.  The Trump Administration’s (or Stephen Miller’s) decision to change the “public charge” rule ranks up there as one of the most important things that I’ve had an opportunity to address.  Assuming no litigation to stop the change, the proposed change to the “public charge” rule will dramatically expand the number of immigrants that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could deem ineligible for lawful permanent residence (i.e., for Green Cards) or admission to the United States on account of income level and prior use of certain public benefits.

As often is the case in these articles, a little context is in order.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), an individual may be denied admission into the United States or denied the ability to become a Green Card holder if he or she is “likely at any time to become a public charge.”[1]  An individual who has previously been admitted to the United States may also be subject to removal / deportation from the United States based on a separate public charge ground of deportability.  There are certain exemptions to these provisions (e.g., for refugees and asylees).

DHS and the Department of State (DOS) are the agencies that implement the INA’s public charge provisions. DHS addresses whether to make a public charge determination when an individual applies to become a Green Card holder in the United States.  DOS, on the other hand, makes its own public charge determination when its consular officers review applications for immigrant visas (the document that allows an individual to enter the United States as an LPR).

Although the INA does not itself define what the term “public charge” means, DHS guidance has defined it to mean a person who is or is likely to become “primarily dependent” on “public cash assistance for income maintenance” or “institutionaliz[ed] for long-term care at government expense.”[2]  Historically, in determining whether an individual meets the definition for public charge inadmissibility, a number of factors must have been considered, including age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education, and skills. No single factor will determine whether an individual is a public charge.[3]  Also important in the consideration is whether the petitioner who, e.g., sponsored his or her qualifying family member, submitted a sufficient “affidavit of support”.[4]

On August 14, 2019, DHS published a final rule governing the INA’s public charge grounds of inadmissibility. It goes effect on October 15, 2019.  If not prevented from going into effect, the rule will have a chilling effect on families throughout the country who choose to forgo essential services to avoid imperiling their immigration status. (Candidly, the very announcement of the new rule has already had this chilling effect.)

The new rule dramatically changes the standard by which DHS determines whether an applicant for a Green Card or admission to the United States is “likely at any time to become a public charge.”  Under the new rule,[5]DHS removes the consideration of whether an individual is primarily dependent on public benefits, and now redefines public charge as a noncitizen who receives a specified public benefit for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period.[6]  This rule will severely punish individuals for seeking basic needs and will no doubt put families at risk of separation.

As alluded to earlier, under current law, a petitioner (e.g., family member) for someone applying for a Green Card or admission as an immigrant is typically required to file an “affidavit of support”, which wasn’t always outcome-determinative as to whether an individual would likely at any time in the future become a public charge, but was very helpful in swaying that determination in favor of the applicant.  Not so any longer under the new rule.  Under the new rule, DHS adjudicators will apply a complex totality of circumstances test that weighs the individual’s age, health, family status, education and skills, and assets, resources, and financial status, all while taking into account a broad range of positive and negative factors. DHS has also indicated in the final rule that it interprets “likely at any time” to mean that it is “more likely than not” that the individual at any time in the future will receive one or more public benefits defined by the rule.

There are many consequences to this new rule.  The new rule is far more restrictive than current policy, and no doubt will result in higher denial rates for those applying for Green Cards that are subject to public charge determinations. Moreover, the new multi-factor test will leave too much discretion to DHS adjudicators and likely will also produce inconsistent and unpredictable decisions.

As bad as all that is, and it’s bad, more importantly the announcement of the new rule, and its implementation, has created and will now exacerbate a chilling effect felt throughout immigrant communities.  According to the Urban Institute, about 14% of adults in immigrants families indicated that they or a family member opted not to participate in a non-cash public benefit program in 2018 because of their concern over jeopardizing their green card eligibility.[7]  Again, this new rule will punish individuals for seeking very basic needs.

This new rule is yet another brick in what has come to be known as Trump’s (or dare I again say Stephen Miller’s) “invisible wall”, which has been nothing more than far-reaching policies and practices restricting legal immigration to and in the United States.  Enough is enough.

[1]INA §212(a)(4); 8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(4)(A).

[2]See“Field Guidance on Deportability and Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds,” 64 FR 28689 (May 26, 1999).

[3]An exception to this would be the lack of an “affidavit of support,” if one is required for an individual to become an LPR or to be admitted to the United States.

[4]Seee.g., 8 U.S.C. §1183a.

[5]8 C.F.R. §212.21(a).

[6]The new rule defines a public benefit as (1) Any federal, state, local, or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance, including: (a) Supplemental Security Income (SSI), 42 U.S.C. 1381 et seq.; (b) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), 42 U.S.C. 601 et seq.; (c) Federal, state, or local cash benefits programs for income maintenance (often called “General Assistance” in the State context, but which also exist under other names); (2) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), 7 U.S.C. 2011 to 2036c; (3) Section 8 Housing Assistance under the Housing Choice Voucher Program as administered by HUD under 42 U.S.C. 1437f; (4) Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (including Moderate Rehabilitation) under Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 (42 U.S.C. 1437f); (5) Medicaid, with certain exceptions, such as benefits received by individuals under the age of 21 and pregnant women (or for a period of 60 days after the last day of pregnancy); and (6)

Public housing under section 9 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937.

[7]http://www.urban.org/research/publication/adults-immigrant-families-report-avoiding-routine-activities-because-

immigration-concerns.

Immigration in the News

screen_2x.jpgThe other day, I saw the following headline on the NBC news site: Rep. Steve King: I drank from the toilet-fountain hybrid at border facility and it was ‘pretty good’.  The article describes Rep. King’s recent visit to a migrant detention center where he explains that he “went into that cell where it was reported that they were advised they had to drink out of the toilet” and that drink was “pretty good.”

I’m sorry, what?

I’ve worked in this field, either as a lawyer or an advocate, for over 30 years now. Immigration has always been a hot topic, but never the proverbial third rail of politics as it is today (and has been for about the last three years).  When I read the article, I thought it would be interesting (but ultimately found it to be rather sad) to take a sampling of other immigration-related articles that have been in the news cycle over the last month or so. Here a just a few:

  • Many Moms Say Kid’s Health Worsened in Immigration Custody. According to the New York Times, a Dilley Pro Bono Project study found mothers who were detained this past summer reported that the health of their children worsened in custody, including bouts of fever, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Pentagon Details Programs Targeted for Cuts to Fund Border Wall. The Wall Street Journalreports that the Trump administration plans on diverting $3.6 billion from military-construction projects in 23 states, 3 U.S. territories and at least 19 countries to build or fortify portions of the President’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Recall, of course, that the President has told us countless times that the wall would be paid for by Mexico.
  • Chief of U.S. asylum office reassigned as White House pushes for tighter immigration controls.According to the Washington Post, in what appears to be a demotion, the head of the asylum office at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) is being removed from his job and reassigned, “a move that follows multiple White House-directed attempts to raise new barriers to those seeking humanitarian refuge in the United States.”

As I write this article, the articles above are just from the day before. Here are a couple more from August.

  • Trump Administration to Divert Hurricane Relief Funds for Border Detention. Just days before Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, and was on track to impact coastal areas of the United States (although not Alabama), The Wall Street Journalreported that the Trump administration planned on using $271 million of Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) appropriated funds, including some funds designated to help hurricane-stricken areas, to detain and remove immigrants who unlawfully cross the southern U.S. border.
  • Fed Up With Immigration Backlog, Lawyers Head to the Courts. As a result of what I can only say feels like unprecedented backlogs and delays, Bloomberg reports that attorneys are turning to the federal courts in an effort to “unclog” massive immigration application backlogs, some lasting up to seven years for simple applications.

There are so many more.  The new “public charge” rule,[1]the immigration raids in Mississippi and the countless kids left parentless as a result of them, and so on and so on.

What have we become?  Who have we become?  The bad news seems endless, and with it, we see almost daily dramatic changes in DHS policy under the Trump administration which have and continue to undermine our legal immigration system that the agencies that were created to facilitate.

There are processing delays, changes impacting students and scholars, changes in the “public charge” ground of inadmissibility, not to mention the ever-present issue that U.S. employers undergo annually to hire coveted H-1B, H-2B or H-2A nonimmigrant workers.

We need to hold DHS and the President accountable for the hardship they are creating to families, vulnerable populations, and U.S. businesses around our great country. The public deserves no less.

[1]I will be addressing this very critical change in a separate article.

Enforcement Actions and Raids in the Age of Trump

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????As I write this article, the Saratoga thoroughbred racing season is just days away from its opening day. The trainers, veterinarians, farriers and jockeys can all be seen milling around the barns and training track. Downtown, the community is buzzing with visitors from all over the world, and the restaurants and other hospitality-based businesses are filled to capacity.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., our president is planning large-scale enforcement actions and raids, apparently in ten major cities across the country. Media outlets are reporting that the raids will take place in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York City, and San Francisco.

Although not a major city (size-wise anyway), the President’s proposed actions have people and businesses worried in my own hometown of Saratoga Springs. Unfortunately, it is now common to see U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) conducting enforcement actions in our community.  It started in earnest in the Spring of 2017, and it continues today.  It is having a real impact on service-industry businesses. This time of year, it also impacts the race track’s back stretch workers.

The back stretch workers are absolutely essential to the horse racing industry.  They do all of the little things to make our track experience enjoyable (and candidly they perform jobs that most U.S. workers don’t want to do.).  A great many of these workers are foreign workers. And although most of these workers are here lawfully, certainly some are not.  Likewise, in our restaurants and hotels, many of the back-of-the-house workers that you rarely if ever see are also foreign workers.  And yes, I am sure some of them are not here lawfully.

President Trump’s enforcement actions and raids are happening amid a very tight labor market nationally.  Saratoga Springs is fortunate to have very low unemployment.  But with that comes issues associated with hiring and retaining enough workers to fill year-round labor needs, including the bump that employers need during track season.

Some reports suggest that President Trump’s immigration raids will focus on migrant family units with final orders of removal.  Other reports have indicated that targeted individuals will be minors who came into the U.S. without their parents and have since turned 18, individuals who were ordered removed in absentia, and individuals who missed a court hearing and did not thereafter respond to letters mailed to their homes by the Department of Justice.  The common theme seems to be the mass round-ups of vulnerable families from Central America who have fled to the United States to seek asylum and have since been ordered removed.

In this era of enforcement actions and raids, it is critically important that we remember that every person living in the United States, including those individuals who are undocumented immigrants or otherwise here unlawfully, have certain rights under our Constitution, whether they be in public, in their workplace, or in their home.

If you know someone who is undocumented or otherwise present in the United States unlawfully, and an ICE officer stops them on the street or in a public place, they have rights.  First, they have the right to remain silent. They do not need to speak to the immigration officers or answer any of their questions.  Second, they may refuse a search. If they are stopped for questioning but are not arrested, they do not need to consent to a search of themselves or their belongings.  (An officer may “pat down” an individual’s clothes, however, if he or she suspects an individual has a weapon.)  Finally, every individual has the right to speak to a lawyer. If an individual is detained or taken into custody, then he or she has the right to immediately contact a lawyer.

If an individual is in their home, and an ICE officer knocks on their door, in addition to all of the above rights, they do not have to open the door or let the officers into their home unless they have a valid search warrant signed by a judge.  Finally, if an ICE officer comes to someone’s work place, they again must have a valid search warrant or the consent of the employer to enter non-public area.

For additional Know Your Rights resources, I would encourage you to check out either the Immigration Legal Resource Centeror the American Civil Liberties Union.

The President’s enforcement plans are a monumental waste of time and resources and, as always, grounded in politics.  We should all remain focused on real solutions to the immigration problem that has plagued our country for longer than I care to remember.  The members of our community who are being arrested, detained and deported are mothers, fathers and children.  They’re our neighbors.  They’re the people who make your summer in Saratoga experience all that you want it to be for you and your families.  Let’s stop playing games and starting working on real solutions. It’s about time.

 

Not-for-Profits and the Importance of Immigration Advocates

clinicSome of you know that I was engaged by the late Sr. Maureen Joyce, the then-CEO at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, in July 2000, to help Catholic Charities launch an immigration program that would serve low- and no-income individuals from a 14-county area in and around the Capital Region. Catholic Charities created the immigration program to foster and facilitate family unity, freedom, and citizenship for eligible foreign-born persons by providing low-cost and high-quality legal services. Catholic Charities also engages in public advocacy and community training and outreach to advance the fair treatment of our nations’ immigrants, and to protect the rights of such immigrant and refugees.

My initial task was to obtain accreditation for the agency with the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”), which is part of the Executive Office of Immigration Review (“EOIR”), so that Catholic Charities could provide services to individuals who were in need of immigration assistance. Once we did that, I hired a staff of one, who works part-time. More recently, we’ve hired another individual, who also works part-time. My work for the agency is part-time. Although Catholic Charities is authorized by the BIA to charge fees for its services, to date we never have.
The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., commonly known as CLINIC, is the legal support arm for Catholic Charities’ immigration programs across the country. CLINIC was established in 1988 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to support the rapidly growing network of community-based immigration programs like ours in Albany. CLINIC’s creation enables Catholic organizations across the country to get the necessary training and institutional support they need to provide low or no cost immigration legal services to those in need.

Here are just a few facts about CLINIC:
• In 2017, CLINIC’s network conducted an estimated 276,000 consultations, more than half of which became cases for network agencies.
• Also, in 2017, CLINIC’s network filed approximately 247,000 applications, petitions, motions, or waivers. Those applications served about 500,000 people, including the applicants themselves and their dependents.
• Volunteers accounted for more than 84,000 hours of assistance in 2017, enabling programs to provide legal services to a broader base.
• And finally, also in 2017, CLINIC supported nearly 5,400 community outreach presentations, which reached nearly 325,000 people, all of which provided necessary and importation information about legal rights and options.

There are many “perks” of being member organization of CLINIC. For me, the biggest perk is being able to work with, and be supported by, a group of seriously talented immigration lawyers and advocates. Last month, and each year for nearly the last twenty, I have attended CLINIC’s Annual Convening. Among other things that takes place at the Convening, attorneys and advocates gain insight and premier education about immigration law, program management and advocacy. The Convening moves around the country each year. This year we were in Pittsburgh. In the past, we’ve been to Tucson, Portland, New Orleans and of course Washington, D.C. Regardless of the location, I come home every year so incredibly impressed by the level of knowledge that the attorneys and advocates who teach the programs have, and their incredible commitment to protect the dignity and the rights of the immigrants that they and we serve. I marvel at how much they know and how much I still have to learn. I am so incredibly grateful for their incredible passion and commitment.

CLINIC’s staff trains close to 10,000 people a year, in topics ranging from the basics of immigration law to the nuances of representing clients in detention and removal / deportation proceedings. It’s hard work and it’s very complex. They make it seem easy, and more than anything, it’s clear that they love what they do. It’s very motivating. When I return each year, I am energized to keep trying, to perhaps do just a little more.
In these very tumultuous and politically troubling times, CLINIC’s work, and ours at Catholic Charities in Albany, is more important than ever. Given the current political climate, the current make-up of Congress, and the fact that President Trump has shamefully shown no humanity to almost all immigrants except for perhaps “the best and brightest”, the work of CLINIC, its member agencies, and frankly all not-for-profit immigration programs across the country, needs your support. We all need to do our part.

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.

New Years Eve 2019 – The Epilogue (When the Broken Immigration System Broke)

computercrashSome of you will recall my post-New Years Eve rant about the H-2B nonimmigrant visa program, and specifically the mayhem that ensued as the clock struck midnight on New Years Eve when the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“USDOL”) servers had a meltdown.[1]  As the New Year rang in, there were applications for approximately 97,800 workers that were about to be filed with the USDOL and, because of the “unprecedented volume of simultaneous system users”, the USDOL’s computer system completely hemorrhaged and shut down.[2]  There was, according to the USDOL, over thirty times the user demand this past New Years Even compared to the previous year.[3]  Doesn’t that tell you something about the need for the H-2B visa program.

One week later – on a Monday – in the middle of the afternoon during a normal workday – the USDOL finally got its act together and most of the H-2B filings that were supposed to be filed on New Years Eve were filed.[4]  So, what happened after that?

Well, for one thing, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (“USCIS”) recently announced that it has 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.

This is yet another example of a visa program that is desperately in need of reform and is woefully mismanaged.

In what can only be described as a glimmer of marginal and limited hope for some of our clients, on February 15, 2019, President Trump signed an omnibus spending bill which includes a provision providing limited cap relief to H-2B employers during FY2019. The Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, has yet to announce how many additional H-2B visas will be made available for the remainder of FY2019.

The second thing that happened is the USDOL updated its procedures for processing H-2B applications.  That is, the USDOL has proposed a rule that for all H-2B applications filed on or after July 3, 2019, which is the earliest an employer can start the H-2B process for FY2020, applications will be randomly ordered for processing based on the date of filing and the start date of work requested.

Some of you will recall previous rants of mine related to the H-1B program, and specifically USCIS’s use of a “lottery” system to determine which employers’ petitions (who wish to hire foreign workers in “specialty occupations”) it will accept, and which it will reject.  I counsel my clients who we file H-1B petitions for with USCIS to “keep their fingers crossed.”   Imagine that a client hires you, pays you your fee, and you tell them to “keep their fingers crossed” that USCIS simply selects their petition – in a lottery system.  The system is ridiculous.

Politics aside, the United States is experiencing a strong economy with record-low unemployment.  The H-2B program’s congressionally mandated cap of 66,000 visas is entirely inadequate to meet the seasonal needs of the many businesses that participate in the program.  And for all the nay sayers who say “Hire American”, this program requires employers to recruit for available U.S. workers.  In most cases, they’re aren’t any for these positions.  And quite candidly, if everyone would allow for a moment of truth, U.S. workers simply do not want to do the jobs that are generally utilized in the H-2B program.  It’s just that simple.

According to the H-2B Workforce Coalition, if Congress does not take immediate steps to raise or eliminate the H-2B cap, over 70% of seasonal positions for the second half of fiscal 2019 will go unfulfilled due to cap limitations.[5]

Our government must come up with a better and more equitable system within which employers can hire the help that they need. The H-2B program is an absolutely necessary program for many many employers.  The process for participating in it, and the ability to participate in it, however, needs to be totally reformed.

[1]Recall that the H-2B visa program requires employers (or their attorneys) to sit by their computer at the stroke of midnight (on the east coast anyway), on New Years Eve, requiring them to hit “submit”, tens and sometimes hundreds of times, so they can participate in a visa program to fill necessary positions with their company.

[2]USDOL indicated that employers had prepared 5,400 H-2B applications, which were in a queue to be submitted to the USDOL, seeking a total of 97,800 workers.

[3]Seehttps://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/.

[4]The USDOL reported that there were approximately 4,195 H-2B applications covering more than 79,500 workers positions.  Seehttps://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/.

[5]Seewww.h2bworkforcecoalition.com.

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-

1511114338.

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