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Immigration Reform by Executive Action: What Did Obama Actually Do?

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So, the President finally did it.  On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced a series of actions (not executive orders as it turns out) that his administration is taking to “fix” what he has repeatedly described as a “broken immigration system.”  These actions involve, among other areas, border security, providing a temporary status (commonly called “deferred action”) for some aliens who are currently unlawfully present in the United States, and future legal immigration.  So what did the President actually do?  I’m glad you asked.

Border Security.  Likely to placate those on the right, and certainly consistent with this Administration’s record level of deportations, the President announced he is implementing a “Southern Border and Approaches Campaign Strategy” which the Administration argues will “fundamentally alter” the way in which it marshals resources to the border.  We’re informed that this will involve the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) commissioning of three (3) task forces, consisting of various law enforcement agencies, which will focus on the southern maritime border, the southern land border and West Coast, and investigations to support the other two task forces. The primary objectives of this new strategy is increasing the risk of engaging in or facilitating illegal transnational or cross-border activity, interdicting people who attempt to enter illegally between ports of entry, and preventing the illegal exploitation of legal flows (e.g., alien smuggling at ports of entry).

Aliens Unlawfully Present in the United States.  The centerpiece of President Obama’s announcement, and no doubt the most controversial, is to grant deferred action (basically temporary relief from removal) to some aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States (i.e., those who were brought to the United States as children and raised here, or those who have children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents (“LPR’s”)).

In addition, President Obama expanded a program his administration announced in June 2012, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”).  That program allowed aliens who were unlawfully present in the United States, and who had been brought to the United States as children and met other criteria, to also receive deferred action and, in many cases, employment authorization.  DACA, as originally proposed, expressly excluded aliens who were unlawfully present aliens and who were over 31 years old, or who had entered the United States on or after June 15, 2007.  Under President Obama’s recent action, aliens who are over 31 years old, or entered the United States between June 15, 2007, and January 1, 2010, could receive deferred action.  The President’s recent initiative would also extend the duration of grants of deferred action (and work authorization) received by DACA beneficiaries from the current two years, to three years.

As noted above, aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States who have children who are U.S. citizens or LPR’s will also be eligible for deferred action (and employment authorization) provided they can show (1) “continuous residence” in the United States since before January 1, 2010, (2) physical presence in the United States both on the date the initiative was announced (i.e., November 20, 2014) and when they apply for deferred action, (3) not being an enforcement priority under the administration’s newly announced priorities, and (4) they present no other factors that, in the exercise of discretion, makes the grant of deferred action inappropriate.  Individuals who are granted deferred action pursuant to the President’s initiatives, or otherwise, are eligible for employment authorization provided they can show “an economic necessity for employment.”

There were other provisions which addressed aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States too, but these are the big ones.

Legal Immigration.  The President also announced certain initiatives intended to affect aliens who are lawfully present in the United States, and which was described by the President as supporting high-skilled business and workers.  One such provision is to ensure that all immigrant visas (basically “Green Cards”) which are authorized by Congress in a given fiscal year are actually issued.

Yet another initiative that the President announced is expanding the duration of “optional practical training” (“OPT”) available to F-1 nonimmigrant students in the United States studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) fields at institutions of higher education in the United States, as well as expanding the actual degree programs that are eligible for OPT.

Again, there were other provisions which the President announced in this category.

I realize the President’s actions are very controversial, and a lot of people are unhappy with them.  As I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, our immigration system is broken and it desperately needs to be fixed.  In a perfect world, Congress would pass meaningful, comprehensive and bipartisan legislation, and send it to the President for his signature.  That has not happened for way too long. So I suppose this is the next best thing.

US Employers Apply for Visas for Foreign Nationals in Specialty Applications : H-1B Cap Reached in 7 Days

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????On April 7, 2014, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) made the following announcement:

“U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced today that it has received a sufficient number of H-1B petitions to reach the statutory cap for fiscal year (FY) 2015. USCIS has also received more than the limit of 20,000 H-1B petitions filed under the U. S. advanced degree exemption.”

O.K., I know what you’re thinking. “Here he goes again.” Sorry, I can’t help myself. This one is a no brainer.

As a reminder, for those employers who wish to hire foreign nationals as H-1B nonimmigrant workers, unless the position is exempt from the annual cap, there is an annual cap of 65,000 nonimmigrant visas that are available in each government fiscal year (plus an additional 20,000 H-1B nonimmigrant visas for foreign nationals who have earned a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. institution of higher education).

So, in response to the cap being reached pretty much right away, the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association (“AILA”) issued a statement through their President, Doug Stump:

“There is a serious flaw in the laws governing H-1B visas. Instead of reacting to market needs, we discard the applications of tens of thousands of potentially job-creating immigrants every year. … I’m frustrated that we are still in this position. During the recession, we saw that the demand for H-1Bs slowed. The problem is that now that the recovery has been consistent for a few years, it’s become increasingly clear that keeping the same cap we’ve had on these visas for more than ten years is absolutely the last thing we should be doing.”

He’s frustrated? Imagine having to counsel a client that after paying you your legal fees, there’s a chance that all the work that you’ve done for them will go for naught because the government has set up a random lottery system to select which H-1B petitions will be selected and which ones will be rejected. That’s right, a random lottery system. (For you litigators out there, at least when you pick a jury, you have some sort of say in the process, but this is a complete crap shoot.)

Yes, that’s what happens when you receive more than twice the amount of petitions than there are visa numbers available. Indeed USCIS announced that it received approximately 172,500 H-1B petitions during the FY2015 filing period. As a result, it then performed a computer-generated random selection process, which it completed on April 10, 2014, to meet the 65,000 general-category cap and the 20,000 cap under the advanced degree exemption.

Mr. Stump went on in his statement:

“The H-1B process is a complicated one. The petitions are filed by U.S. employers seeking to hire a specific foreign national in a specialty occupation. This is a process that involves a lot of hoops to jump through as it is. If a company files an H-1B petition, the least we should do is consider the request and either approve or reject it on its merits. It isn’t rational to cap these visas arbitrarily and throw out thousands of applications without even a glance.”

I could not agree more. Clients start calling me in January to start preparing for H-1B filing season (which begins on April 1 each year). The simple fact is, there’s a lot of time and expense that goes into preparing an H-1B petition. This is all well-documented, and any Google search will confirm this. So, to go through all this effort and then have USCIS simply reject your client’s petition because the computer did not select it is absolutely ridiculous.

Yes, I know, it’s the law. But it’s a bad law. Again, AILA President Stump:

“Having the talent we need to do the skilled and specialized work that so many companies require in the globally competitive marketplace is vital to our economy and national interests. We need our legislators to take this issue seriously when they move forward on immigration reform because our legal immigration system is in desperate need of an overhaul in order to bring it into the 21st century.”

The same day USCIS made its announcement that the H-1B cap had been reached, the White House issued the following statement regarding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:

“The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) will soon publish several proposed rules that will make the United States more attractive to talented foreign entrepreneurs and other high-skill immigrants who will contribute substantially to the U.S. economy, create jobs, and enhance American innovative competitiveness. These proposed regulations include rules authorizing employment for spouses of certain high-skill workers on H-1B visas, as well as enhancing opportunities for outstanding professors and researchers. These measures build on continuing DHS efforts to streamline, eliminate inefficiency, and increase the transparency of the existing immigration system, such as by the launch of Entrepreneur Pathways, an online resource center that gives immigrant entrepreneurs an intuitive way to navigate opportunities to start and grow a business in the United States.”

The issue of “trailing spouses” is an important one, and locally here in the Capital Region, we have a great resource in Tech Valley Connect, a not-for-profit that, among other things, assists foreign national trailing spouses. But what about the fact that USCIS received more than twice the amount of petitions than there were H-1B numbers within just a few days of being able to file?

We desperately need to increase the number of cap-subject visas available for H-1B nonimmigrants. And that’s not going to happen without strong leadership in the White House, and the support of Congress. The time is still now.

A New Year and New H-1B Filing Season for Specialty Occupations

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So, yes, this is actually what I am thinking about on New Year’s Day.  The start of the H-1B filing season is actually upon us.  Since Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”) did not pass in 2013, the Gang of Eight’s plan to raise the H-1B visa cap never came to be (or I’d like to say has not come to be yet).  As such, immigration practitioners are once again left to have difficult conversations with their clients who wish to hire foreign nationals into what are called “specialty occupation” positions.

A little primer is in order.  An H-1B nonimmigrant visa (or status) is a temporary visa (or, as noted, a status) that may be granted to a foreign national who will perform services in a “specialty occupation.”  A specialty occupation requires the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge and the attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree, or its equivalent, as a minimum requirement for entry into the occupation in the United States.  Representative examples of specialty occupations include architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts.

In order to determine whether a particular position would be considered a specialty occupation, the regulations require that the position must meet one of the following four (4) criteria: (1) a bachelor’s or higher degree or its equivalent is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position; (2) the degree requirement is common in the industry in parallel positions among similar organizations or, alternatively, that the particular position is so complex or unique that a degree is required; (3) the employer normally requires a degree or its equivalent; or (4) the nature of the specific duties is so specialized and complex that the knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with the attainment of a degree.

The U.S. government operates on a fiscal year basis that begins each year on October 1 and runs through the following September 30.  For those employers who wish to hire foreign nationals as H-1B workers, unless the position is exempt, there is an annual cap of 65,000 nonimmigrant visas that are available in each fiscal year (and the additional 20,000 H-1B nonimmigrant visas for foreign nationals who have earned a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. institution of higher education).

Importantly, the earliest date by which an employer may petition for a prospective H-1B worker is the April 1 preceding the October 1 beginning of the U.S. government’s new fiscal year.  Assuming that the offered position is not an exempt position (i.e., a position that is cap exempt), the timing of an employer’s H-1B petition is critical.  This is because in recent years the H-1B cap has been reached within days of April 1.  Therefore, late filing may cause an employer to miss the opportunity to participate in the H-1B program in a given fiscal year.

Because there are some prerequisites to filing an H-1B petition with USCIS (e.g., obtaining a prevailing wage determination, filing a Labor Condition Application with the U.S. Department of Labor, etc.), now is the time for employers to start thinking about whether they wish to participate in the H-1B visa program.

H-1B Visas for High-Tech Workers: Necessary to Industry or Cheap Labor?

The other day I read an Associated Press piece in the Saratogian called Influence Game: Tech, Labor Spar On Immigration.  The article started out as follows:

“To the U.S. technology industry, there’s a dramatic shortfall in the number of Americans skilled in computer programming and engineering that is hampering business. To unions and some Democrats, it’s more sinister: The push by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to expand the number of visas for high-tech foreign workers is an attempt to dilute a lucrative job market with cheap, indentured labor. ” 

The article went on to discuss the politics behind proposed changes to the H-1B nonimmigrant visa program in the Gang of Eight’s bill for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”).  What it did not explore, or explain very well, was the statement that somehow the H-1B program facilitates “cheap, indentured labor.” Please allow me to dispel this myth.

The H-1B nonimmigrant visa is granted to foreign national professionals who will perform services for a U.S. employer in a “specialty occupation.”  Examples of specialty occupations include architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts. Most employment-based nonimmigrant visas are tied to an employment relationship.  That is, a U.S. employer is required to sponsor the foreign national so that the foreign national can work for that sponsoring U.S. employer.  If the foreign national wishes to change jobs in the United States, a new employer must do the same thing. For individuals who are coming to the United States temporarily (which with few exceptions is what a nonimmigrant visa is supposed to be all about), I have no problem that the law requires the employers and employees to be tied at the proverbial hip (although I do agree that some not so nice employers probably do take advantage of this).  Nevertheless, years ago Congress made it much easier for H-1B professionals to move from one employer to another.  With a competitive labor market in the United States, H-1B professionals often do change employers in search of better opportunities (and I regularly work with both employers and employees where an H-1B professional is moving from one employer to another).  H-1B employees are hardly indentured workers.

I am also troubled, however, by this persistent myth that somehow this labor is “cheap.”  Nothing could be further from the truth. The law requires employers to pay foreign nationals on H-1B visas the higher of the prevailing wage for the occupational classification in the area of employment, or the actual wage (that is, the amount paid by that employer to “all other individuals with similar experience and qualifications for the specific employment in question” ).  I regularly see in my practice where an employer wishes to hire an H-1B professional only to find out that the wage the employer must pay the foreign national is higher, sometimes substantially higher, than the wage the employer was going to offer (or the wage that the employer is currently paying other individuals at the employer’s business).

Another fact lost in the article is the hassle and expense for a U.S. employer to sponsor a foreign national for an H-1B. To hire a foreign national on an H-1B, a U.S. employer must incur legal fees, filing fees, training fees, fraud prevention and detection fees, and sometimes even “premium processing” fees (i.e., fees paid U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [“USCIS”] to expedite a petition).  There are potentially more fees too.  Filing fees alone to USCIS can be north of $5,000.00.   And this does not include the additional expenses to the company associated with the extra paperwork and ongoing compliance involved in the hiring and employing of an H-1B professional.

Trust me when I say H-1B professionals are not cheap labor, for the H-1B professional or the employer.

The “Gang of Eight” Introduce a Bipartisan Immigration Reform Bill

imm_4This morning, the Gang of Eight offered their vision of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  Senators Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, Bennet, and Flake introduced the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” an 844 page piece of legislation.  This is Congress’s starting point for further discussion, debate, no doubt revision, and eventually (hopefully) the signature of President Obama.  In a joint statement upon the introduction of the bill, the Senators said:

“Our immigration system is broken and it is time for a national conversation about how to fix it. We believe common-sense immigration reform is vital in order to secure America’s borders, advance our economic growth, and provide fuller access to the American dream. Our bipartisan proposal is a starting point, and will be strengthened by good-faith input and ideas from across the ideological spectrum. We look forward to multiple Senate hearings on this bill, an open committee process with amendments, and a full and fair debate in the Senate.”

I know the topic of immigration and immigration reform invokes deep feelings… both positive and negative, from the general public.  People are entitled to their opinions.  I have them too.  But when I think about these topics, I make myself take off my lawyer hat and try to set aside my political ideology.  I try to come at this issue from a very practical point of view.  Our immigration system is broken.  Is it practical to think that we’re going to deport 11 to 13 million undocumented foreign nationals who are presently in the United States?  No.  Does it make sense that we educate foreign nationals at some of our best institutions of higher education… and then tell them that they can’t stay here because there’s no visa, either temporary or permanent, that allows them to?  No. Our immigration system is broken and it is about time that our national leaders, with the input of relevant stakeholders, discuss, debate and implement comprehensive immigration reform.

Very broadly, the Gang of Eight’s bill addresses such important issues such as (a) border security, (b) legalization for individuals in an unlawful status (a so-called “registered provisional immigrant status” where after ten years an individual could apply for lawful permanent residence, i.e., a Green Card, through a merit-based system), (c) elimination of backlogs in the current family- and employment-based immigrant visa categories, (d) the creation of a startup visa for foreign entrepreneurs who seek to emigrate to the United States to startup their own companies, (e) merit-based visas, where points are awarded to individuals based on their education, employment, length of residence in the U.S. and other considerations, (f) enhanced employment verification rules (i.e., mandatory participation in the E-Verify program, photo-matching, etc.), (g) H-1B nonimmigrant visa reform (e.g., raising the base cap of 65,000 to 110,000, with the potential for the cap to go as high as 180,000, and amending the current 20,000 exemption for U.S. advanced degree holders to be a 25,000 exemption for advanced degree graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from U.S. schools, along with several other changes), (i) visa programs for lower-skilled workers, and (j) a program to allow current undocumented farm workers to obtain legal status.

It will take some time for this proposed legislation to be reviewed and digested.  Then the debate will begin.  The debate will be spirited.  Hopefully it will be constructive and not divisive.

Is this proposed legislation perfect?  I’ve obviously only skimmed it at this point, but the answer is probably no.  Is it a good start?  It sure is.  More than anything, though, “it’s about time.”

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