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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.

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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