Changes Imminent to H-4 Dependent Form I-539: USCIS Announces Updated Implementation Plan

USCIS recently announced their intent to publish a new version of Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status. Form I-539 is commonly used by individuals residing in the U.S. temporarily, such as dependents of H-1B, L-1, E-1, E-2, J-1, etc. F-1 students and B-1/B-2 visitors may also use the form to extend their stay in the U.S.

USCIS originally stated that the revised version will be available on March 11, 2019; the same day only that version of the form will be accepted. The supplemental Form I-539A was also scheduled to be updated on that date.

Stakeholder Concern

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and other stakeholders expressed concern that there is no grace period and that the form and instructions are being released the same day that it becomes mandatory to use. The timing is difficult for beneficiaries and companies attempting to file for H-1B employees and H-4 dependents by the April filing deadline. AILA sent a letter on February 21 to USCIS Director Cissna requesting a delay for the March 11 effective date and suggesting a 90-day grace period for the updated form.

USCIS Revises Form Implementation Plan

The Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman considered the concerns stakeholders articulated over the transition and hosted a teleconference on March 1, 2019 to discuss the revised forms. During that call, USCIS announced some modifications to the original timeline and implementation plan:

  • USCIS stated the revised forms I-539 and I-539A would be posted three days early.
  • There will be a 10-day grace period for those filing with the old versions of the forms: the previous version with edition date 12/23/16 will be accepted if received at a USCIS Lockbox by close of business on March 21, 2019.
  • The new forms with edition date of 2/4/19 will be accepted starting March 11, 2019.

USCIS also stated that during the grace period, the new forms will be held for processing until March 22, 2019 with the receipt date based on when the USCIS Lockbox actually received the filing.

Highlighted Updates

Below are the major changes to the form I-539 and I-539A:

  • Every co-applicant on the primary Form I-539 must submit and sign a separate Form I-539A. Parents or guardians may sign on behalf of children under the age of 14.
  • Every applicant and co-applicant must now pay separate $85 biometric services fees (except certain A, G, and NATO nonimmigrants).
  • Every applicant and co-applicant will receive biometric services appointments, regardless of age, containing an individual receipt number. The appointments will be scheduled at the Application Support Center (ASC) closest to the primary applicant’s address. (Co-applicants who wish to be scheduled at a different ASC location should file a separate Form I-539.)

Implications for H-1B Cap Season

Challa Law Group has determined that only select H-4 filings will be sent with the initial H-1B petition due to the uncertainty and timing surrounding the updated forms. We will only file in cases in which the principal or the H-4 dependent will fall out of a valid immigration status without a pending application or petition. For example, if the principal visa holder has Optional Practical Training through an F-1 student visa, he or she can utilize the “cap gap” to continue working until October 1. The individual can then stay in the U.S. based on the pending H-1B but cannot continue working beyond October 1 without another work-authorized status. The dependent should file for the H-4 application to also maintain his or her stay in the U.S. while the USCIS is adjudicating the cases. (For F-1 students with OPT expiring before October 1, if an OPT STEM extension is available, the student should first file for the STEM extension instead of an H-4 visa until an H-1B or another independent status can be obtained.)

By deferring the H-4 applications until after the cap filing deadline, we will mitigate some of the additional confusion surrounding a form update with no grace period. When an individual is selected in the H-1B visa cap, then the H-4 application can be submitted at that time. This will allow biometrics fees and additional signatures to be collected from H-4 dependents separately from the H-1B documentation, streamlining the process for employers and beneficiaries.

 Trump Administration’s Intent to Rescind H-4 Work Authorization

In 2015, DHS published a final rule extending eligibility for employment authorization to certain H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants seeking employment-based permanent residence. That rule is now being reconsidered as the Trump administration signaled its intent to remove work authorization for H-4 dependents in late 2017. The proposed rule has moved forward to review by the Office of Management and Personnel. While the proposed regulation is not available for public review yet, some have predicted that the rule could be published in the Federal Register before a March 18 deadline in a lawsuit: Save Jobs USA v. DHS. The lawsuit, brought by U.S. technology workers, purports that DHS had no authority to issue work authorization to H-4 spouses in the first place and that the program should end immediately.

Possible Timeline for H-4 Work Authorization Rescission

While the final rule will not be available until it is published in the Federal Register, we expect that the rule will provide a timeline for no longer accepting H-4 EAD applications and determine when current H-4 EAD holders will need to stop working (unless obtaining an alternative work-authorized status). If the rule is rescinded, there could be additional litigation to challenge the ruling. Individuals currently working on the H-4 EAD should consider an independent work-authorized status if available.

Note: Attorneys Challa and Millburn at Challa Law Group are members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.