Tag Archives: immigration

Department of State Visa Backlog Update

Only have a few minutes? Here are the key takeaways:

  • In January of 2020, the NVC backlog was at 80,000. Fifteen months later, the current number of applicants that are ready for interviews is 481,965.
  • DOS is prioritizing family unification with four priority tiers:

    Tier 1
    are family-based immediate relative visas and adoption-based visas, as well as age-out cases and certain special immigrant visas.
    Tier 2 is going to be other immediate relative visas for spouses, fiancés, parents, and returning resident visas.
    Tier 3 is family preference visas, other special immigrant visas for certain employees of the US government
    Tier 4 includes all other immigrant visas, including employment-preference visas and diversity visas.
  • Fiance visas are part of a National Interest Exemption and are not subject to geographical travel restrictions.
  • The Diversity Visa is a fiscal year program, so as regulations currently stand, all visas must be issued or approved by September 30, 2021 or else they cannot be utilized.
  • DOS is urging patience as consular posts continue to deal with the effects of the pandemic.

Summary of Q & A with Department of State’s Neal Vermillion

Neal Vermillion is a division chief in the Visa Office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs. His division is the Office of Field Operations, which provides guidance to consular sections, embassies, and consulates around the world. He has served for the DOS since the early 2000s all over the world in different field offices and consulates. He is glad to have the opportunity to talk and answer questions about the unprecedented situation with the visa backlog.

 This event is intended to address issues of general interest related to the content of the visa backlog. Questions and answers have been paraphrased and should not be interpreted as verbatim quotes.

Neal would like to go over the recent history of the backlog as a primer before beginning his Q&A:

Overseas immigrant visa processing has been shut down due to the pandemic for the past year, which has affected the immigrant visa backlogs in an interesting way. Last spring, President Trump signed Presidential Proclamation 10014, which prevented the issuance of many immigrant visas. There are still many geographic proclamations in effect which have been issued to protect the health and security of Americans. Proclamations are in effect which cover 33 countries. These issues have all contributed to the creation of an unprecedented backlog. Getting out of the backlog is an ongoing process, although it will be hindered by the ongoing nature of the pandemic.

The reopening process has been hampered by slow vaccination rates outside of the United States, where the pandemic remains a much more serious problem. Neal would like the listeners to know that the Department of State is aware of the problems that visa applicants face and is committed to providing relief and decreasing the Immigrant Visa backlogs.

What is the DOS doing to decrease the visa backlogs worldwide? 

We are fully committed to reducing that backlog, and honestly keeping people informed is part of that effort, which is part of why we’re doing this. I also want to highlight that we have started posting in the last month and will update monthly on our travel.state.gov the stats of the immigrant visa backlog. The National Visa Center – the current number of applicants that are ready for interviews is 481,965 – this is up from January’s figure of 408,255. For comparison, in our last normal month of processing, back in January of 2020, almost fifteen months ago, we had a backlog of 80,000 then. That number will fluctuate over time, and it does not change in a linear way.

In terms of what we’re doing, we’re throwing all available resources that we can at the backlog and we’re telling our overseas consular sections and our embassies and consulates overseas that, after services to US citizens, processing of immigrant visas and fiancé visas is our number one priority. Please understand we are continuing to deal with circumstances on the ground, and our ongoing response to the backlog will depend on these circumstances. We are trying to process these applicants as quickly and safely as possible.

How are IV applicants being prioritized?

We have an article on travel.state.gov from our newsroom that details this, but I’ll answer here as well. Basically, we have many immigrant visa categories. We have relatives, we have employment visas, we have family visas, we have diversity visas.

We don’t want to prioritize any of these categories, however, during the pandemic, we’ve been forced to make difficult decisions on how our consular sections should prioritize different visas. As we develop a framework for prioritization, the principle that underlies our plan is the prioritization of family reunification. It’s a clear priority of the US government, it is a clear priority in the INA, it is specifically our prioritization guidance that we have given publicly as well as to our consular sections. Our guidance relies on a clear direction from Congress that requires the adoption of policy that prioritizes family reunification.

We’ve given our divided immigrant visa work into four priority tiers. We have directed consular sections where it is possible to schedule appointments within all four priority tiers. The majority of the applications that a section will process if they are able to are going to be within the first two tiers.

Tier 1 are family-based immediate relative visas and adoption-based visas, as well as age-out cases and certain special immigrant visas.

Tier 2 is going to be other immediate relative visas for spouses, fiancés, parents, and returning resident visas.

Tier 3 is family preference visas, other special immigrant visas for certain employees of the US government

Tier 4 includes all other immigrant visas, including employment-preference visas and diversity visas.

As mentioned, we’re going to try and do as much as we can for each of those tiers. Some consular stations are processing some cases from each of these tiers.

Will DV 2021 selectees be able to get an interview before the September 30, 2021 deadline?

Diversity visas are a hot topic; we’ve gotten this question before.

The good news is that Presidential Proclamation 10014 has been rescinded, so for the first half of this fiscal year, we were unable to process diversity visas due to that proclamation. As I’m sure people who are interested in diversity visas know, that program is specific to each fiscal year. I can tell you that our colleagues that are responsible for this program, which is the Consular Center, has begun to schedule and process documentarily qualified visas. We truly value the diversity visa program and are going to do what we can.

That said, this pandemic is unpredictable. We’ve seen spikes in the past month in South Asia and in other places. It’s impossible to forecast how many DVs we will issue this year. It is very likely that we will not be able to issue all of the diversity visas this year. 55,000 is the maximum we are able to issue each year.

Obviously last year we weren’t able to get as close to that ceiling as we like. We are committed to doing as much as possible. As has been mentioned earlier, we have local conditions and restrictions that have forced us to prioritize. We are going to do as much as we can before the end of the fiscal year, but it will not be near the 55,000 allowed by the statute.

Will DV 2020 selectees who were not interviewed prior to September 2020 be interviewed?

I understand the frustrations of the selectees from last fiscal year. It’s kind of the opposite of what happened this year, where we processed smoothly for the first half of the year and then were interrupted by COVID.

To go back to what I said earlier, the diversity visa program is a fiscal year-specific program. Applicants who were refused because of that proclamation last year cannot be interviewed. The terms of these programs – the fact that it is specific to fiscal year is outlined in the statute. It’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

If you did win and were selected for DV 2020, you can enter future DV lotteries.

That’s a great point, and I know many many people apply for the program year after year after year, and after fifteen years they finally get it. There are no guarantees, of course, it is a selection process.

Why can’t immigrant visa applicants be interviewed virtually?

Good question. Obviously, we’re doing Zoom and YouTube here, technology has changed quite a bit. I’ll give you a straightforward answer – maybe not the most welcome answer – immigrant visa applicants are required by statute to be interviewed in person. As a consular officer who has worked in the field, there are some benefits I should talk about with this process:

National security is our top priority when we adjudicate these applications. Each prospective traveler undergoes extensive screenings. Part of that is that our officers not only look at the visa application, but they also talk to the applicant to make an informed decision about whether the person is eligible or whether there are any national security concerns.

Can you talk about K-1 visas specifically and where they are on the priority list?

K-1 visas are a priority, as I mentioned earlier, we have four tiers of immigrant visa priority, and that the majority of consular sections will be focusing on the first two tiers. Fiancé visas are in that tier as well, along with spousal visas and immediate relative visas in our tier 2. They are a focus. Depending on the post, the backlogs in these cases may be longer than others.

You mentioned for fiancée visas specifically that the geographic proclamations no longer affect those visas?

That is correct. That’s worth reinforcing, since just last month. There is a National Interest Exception. There is a blanket declaration from the Secretary of State that these are a National Interest Exception.

How long does it take to process a current EB I-485 application?

I can’t really get into that, because I’m not an expert. There are so many areas that influence processing time. As many of you know, most immigrant visa applications start with a petition filed with USCIS, and that’s an area I can’t really get into. USCIS I’m sure is facing their own resource constraints, their own pandemic restraints.

Most of our immigrant visa cases get routed through the National Visa Center, which also has its own processing. It takes time, and sometimes people submit documentation that’s not complete, and it takes time to go back and get that documentation, so – public service announcement, please make sure your application is documentarily complete before sending.

At the end, if you have cases sitting in the National Visa Center that we are able to schedule, it comes down to individual posts. I’m not even able to answer that question directly. On the positive sign, we don’t have a proclamation preventing us from processing cases directly, and many of our posts have started resuming services. As of a week or two ago, there were a dozen posts that were not doing immigrant visas. Some were COVID related, such as the spike in South Asia for example, and some were not COVID related, such as Burma and Russia, for example.

Do you know about the status of the KCC backlog processing Diversity Visas? It’s been months.

The KCC, I talked with my colleagues there, and my advice is to just be patient. They are processing as much as they can in the order in which the cases are received. For those of you who are waiting for scheduling, please wait until you are contacted by your particular embassy or consulate. I’ve seen other questions about KCC, and their leadership has reminded me to tell you that if you’re used to calling KCC, they had to send the entire staff home due to the pandemic spike last fall. They used to accept phone calls, they don’t anymore. It’s best to get in touch with KCC via email, although their email system is also backlogged. They are doing their best, please be patient. KCC will get to them, and I encourage you not to send a second or third or fourth follow up. We’re trying to get as many DVs scheduled as we can.

Why are there zero interviews scheduled except for a few expedite cases in the F2 category?

Again, I’m not sure if I can get into each specific category because there are so many factors. Certain posts are able to schedule interviews, depending on their local restrictions. I understand you had on my colleague Charlie Oppenheim who can provide more details on when numbers are available for scheduling, and when they can be called “current.” It really comes down to the particular circumstances in that country.

To get back to the tiers, family preference immigrant visas are in the third priority tier. We are trying to process some, for posts that have backlogs, their emphasis will be on processing fiancés and immediate relatives.

For the Tier 1 category of visa preference, do applicants receive their interview appointment without waiting for the first and the fifteenth of the given months or will the 2NL be sent with no wait time?

This goes back to where we have a multi-step process to talk about. What the NVC does is one thing. The case might be ready to be processed pretty quickly, but a certain consular section or embassy or consulate may not be ready to accept those cases. Many consular posts have determined that they are not planning to accept new cases from the national visa center for the next several months. They will work through those and other high-priority cases before scheduling anything new.

If I have an I-485 AOS done in OCT 2020 for an EB-3, can we request our medicals now before a request is made by USCIS?

I would just follow the directions that are given by the NVC and USCIS. The answer to that is probably gonna be a no, just because the medicals come later in the process. You can tell from this conversation that a lot of my discussion is going to be general. I’m not able to talk about any individual case.

Are there any plans to increase staff?

Good question. I’m not the resources guy, so I wouldn’t be the person to ask about that. I’d love to have more staff, but this is not purely a staffing issue. If the world were perfect, Congress would now where to put its resources for staffing – first of all, staffing takes a significant amount of time with training and all that, but the important points that in many of these backlog cases, the backlog is coming from those other factors I’ve talked about – the Presidential Proclamations, the fact that we’ve had to shut down, and the closures at consulates and embassies. It’s going to be a non-linear process, but we will get there as quickly and safely as we can.

Do embassies prioritize medical professionals such as nurses under the EB-3 category?

Good questions. EB-3 is an employment preference category, which would put in priority tier 4. We recognize the importance of medical professionals, our posts are doing their best to process as many as they can, but there are certain exceptions, but at this time all employment-based preferences are in the lowest tier of priority. It really depends on your consular section.

Is It possible to maintain or go back to regular capacity by providing a COVID test less than 72 hours before an appointment?

That’s a really good question, and I applaud the creative thinking, but, unfortunately, each consular section is operating in a different locality. We need to follow the local guidelines for shutdowns and social distancing while also following CDC guidelines for operations.

Why would consulates not book IR-1 or CR-1 interviews?

IR-1s are immediate relatives, so without knowing the specific circumstances of the consulate that you’re talking about, I can’t comment on why interviews are not being scheduled. Again – patience, patience, patience. In that particular locale, the list is probably long, and circumstances are probably preventing the processing of immediate relatives, and they’re working through it as fast as they can.

Have you actually ordered all embassies to resume IV processing? What are you doing to ensure that posts are following orders?

No, posts have not been ordered to resume IV processing. Let me review the guidance that we’re talking about: We need to prioritize the health and safety of our applicants and our staff, and about the people who come into contact with those people. We cannot order a consular section overseas to proceed if it is unsafe to do so. What I can say though is that, as they are safe to reopen, consulates must follow the prioritization guidelines I mentioned earlier. Please be patient. It’s not an easy situation for any of us.

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USCIS Fees Increase on October 2, 2020

USCIS Fees Increase on October 2, 2020
(UPDATE: A nationwide injunction has temporarily paused implementation of this rule.)

On July 31, 2020 the Department of Homeland Security announced an increase to fees for immigration and naturalization benefit requests. Although most fees are increasing, a $10 discount is offered for online submission where available.

Employment Visa Updates

Employers are understandably concerned about the potential effect the rule has on H-1B, L-1, and other immigrant employees. For employers with more than 50 employees and more than 50% of those employees in H-1B or L-1 status, a $4,000 fee applies. The rule expands the Public Law 114-113 fee of $4,000 to both H-1B and L-1 new employment as well as extensions of stay for employers that meet the 50 employee, 50% dependability test. The Public Law fee will apply regardless of whether the fraud fee applies. Extension requests for H-1B, L-1A, and L-1B visas filed by the same petitioner for the same employee or H-1B, L-1A, and L-1B amended petitions were previously exempt from the additional fee.

DHS will now separate the I-129 into forms based on case type and eliminate the current supplements to the I-129 form. This also allows DHS to charge separate fees for each form depending on the classification. DHS states that the current base filing fee of $460 doesn’t accurately capture the costs associated with adjudication since the fee is paid regardless of how many nonimmigrant workers will benefit from the petition or application, the type of worker evaluated, whether an employee is identified, or how long it takes to adjudicate the different nonimmigrant classifications.

The rule updates the filing fees as follows:

Case Type Current Fee Final Fee Change Percent Change
E-1

E-2

TN

$460 $695 $235 51 percent
H-1B $460 $555 $95 21 percent
H-2A
(named beneficiaries)
$460 $850 $390 85 percent
H-2B
(named beneficiaries)
$460 $715 $255 55 percent
L-1A

L-1B

$460 $805 $345 75 percent
O-1 $460 $705 $245 53 percent
H-2A
(unnamed beneficiaries)
$460 $415 -$45 -10 percent
H-2B
(unnamed beneficiaries)
$460 $385 -$75 -16 percent


Green Card Fee Changes

Children under the age of 14 filing for a green card with their parents were previously able to pay a reduced fee of $750 instead of the $1,140 (plus $85 biometrics fee) currently charged to older applicants. All applicants will pay $1,130 under the new rule.

DHS also chose to separate the filing fees for Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, and Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, when either filed concurrently with Form I-485 or after the Form I-485 has been accepted and is still pending. Current regulations allow individuals to pay the I-485 fee, but also file the I-765 and I-131 without additional fees if filed concurrently.

The rule claims: “Debundling allows individuals to pay for only the services actually requested. Thus, many individuals may not pay the full combined price for Forms I-485, I-131, and I-765.” The newly established fees are as follows:

  • Form I-131, Application for Travel Document: $590
  • Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization: $550
  • Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or adjust Status: $1,130

Individuals applying for work and travel documents along with their permanent residence application will now pay a total of $2,270.

Citizenship Fees

DHS will remove the N-400 fee waiver (Form I-942) and the reduced fee option “in order to recover full cost for naturalization services.” The rule also removes the fee waiver for the N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship. However, the removal of fee waivers will reduce the cost of Forms N-600 and N-600K because the increased fee would no longer need to cover the cost of the fee-waived form adjudication.

However, the N-400 would not be afforded the same price decrease as the N-600: DHS raised the naturalization fee an astounding 83% from $640 to $1,170 for the paper-based filing. With the removal of the reduced fee option, naturalization may be financially out of reach for many families.

Premium Processing

Currently, petitioners or applicants can pay $1,440 for certain employment-based petitions to be adjudicated within 15 calendar days. The new rule will change the 15-day calculation from calendar days to business days, while also excluding federal holidays and regional or national office closures due to weather or other causes.

The rule also states that the 15-day period be paused when USCIS issues a notification of an approval, denial, RFE, or NOID. The rule would also clarify that a new 15 business day period will begin upon receipt of an RFE or NOID response. If an investigation is opened for fraud or misrepresentation, USCIS can retain the fee and not reach a conclusion to the request within 15 days.

The agency claims that the shift to calculating by business days will allow USCIS additional time to complete processing on a premium processing petition and could reduce the need for USCIS to suspend premium processing when request filing volumes are high.

Payment Updates

USCIS will eliminate the $30 returned check fee because the fees associated with collecting the charge were higher than the returned check fees actually collected. However, petitioners and applicants should still ensure that adequate funds are available to avoid processing delays.

Another shift that has the potential to trip up applicants and petitioners is the planned updates to certain form instructions to only allow certain payment types for certain forms. For example, USCIS may determine that it only wants to accept credit or debit card payments for naturalization. USCIS could also decide that only a check or money order is acceptable payment for a certain form. The rule does not modify the instructions at this time, but states:

“In this final rule, DHS does not restrict the method of payment for any particular immigration benefit request. This final rule clarifies the authority for DHS to prescribe certain types of payments for specific immigration benefits or methods of submission.”

Extra precautions must be taken to review form instructions every time a case is filed to avoid a processing delay due to an incorrect payment type.

Biometrics Fees

The new rule incorporates biometrics fees into the underlying immigration benefit request to “simplify the fee structure, reduce rejections of benefit requests for failure to include a separate biometric services fee, and better reflect how USCIS uses biometric information.” The fee includes FBI name checks, FBI fingerprints, Application Support Center (ASC) contractual support, and biometric service management (including federal employees at ASC locations). The rule outlines that a separate biometric services fee will be retained for Temporary Protected Status in the amount of $30, but requests for other immigration benefits will include the biometric fee.

Secure Mail Initiative

We have seen many clients suffer when the United States Postal Service (USPS) loses important immigration notifications. The rule announced that USCIS will implement Signature Confirmation Restricted Delivery (SCRD) as the sole method of delivery of secure USCIS documents. USPS states that Signature Confirmation requires that the recipient or another responsible person at the residence be present to sign for the item and then the sender will receive the signature and name of the recipient and the date, time, and location of the delivery. The rule outlines states

“USCIS and applicants can track their document using the USPS website up to when the document is delivered. Recipients will also have the ability to change their delivery location by going to the USPS website and selecting “hold for pickup” to arrange for pickup at a post office at a date and time that suits them.”

Applicants and petitioners should ensure that accurate addresses are submitted prior to the case filing.

Timeline for Rule Implementation

This final rule is effective Oct. 2, 2020. Any application, petition, or request postmarked on or after this date must include payment of the new, correct fees established by this final rule and utilize the updated forms.

Are you ready to start your case prior to the fee and process shifts? Contact us at info@challalaw.com or 804-360-8482 to get started today.

USCIS Announces Delays for H-1B Cap Processing & Nonimmigrant Extension/Change of Status Filings

USCIS Announces Delays for H-1B Cap Processing & Nonimmigrant Extension/Change of Status Filings

USCIS announced a series of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including extensions and change of status filings for nonimmigrants and H-1B cap petitions. USCIS offices have been temporarily closed for in-person appointments and much of the workforce is working remotely.

H-1B Cap-Subject Petitions

The H-1B cap filing window opened April 1, 2020 for registrations selected during the March registration period. Previously, USCIS announced that premium processing (guaranteeing a 15 day adjudication window) is suspended until further notice due to the pandemic. Petitioners are now advised that receipt notices will not be generated until at least May 1, 2020, but that intake processing will be done in the order in which the filings arrived at the service centers. Petitions will still be stamped on the date they arrive (if otherwise properly filed) and the receipt date will correspond with the actual arrival date to the service center.

While the receipt date should remain the same, this delay narrows the window for refiling if the case was “improperly filed” due to an error. Increasing the stress on petitioners is the discrepancy between the service centers noted on the registration selection notices, which reflected different service centers than indicated on the USCIS direct filing for I-129 webpage.

The filing windows are not being extended at this time and there is no indication this window will be extended. Petitioners are also asked not to make inquiries on any petitions until receipt notices are received. USCIS stated that:

“Due to delayed data entry and notice generation, there will be a general delay in processing FY 2021 cap-subject petitions. We are mindful of petitions with sensitive expiration and start dates, such as cap-gap petitions, and will strive to process these petitions as efficiently as possible.”

The announcement advised that all cap-subject petitions should be filed at the service center noted on the selection notice, but cases may be transferred between the Vermont, California, Nebraska, and Texas Service Centers to “balance the workload and enhance efficiencies.” All transferred cases will receive a notification in the mail with the new location.

Nonimmigrant Extension/Change of Status Filings

In the announcement warning of delays in processing, the Department of Homeland Security also hinted of more restrictive immigration policies:

“DHS also continues to take action to protect the American people and our communities, and is considering a number of policies and procedures to improve the employment opportunities of U.S. workers during this pandemic.”

The announcement acknowledges the existing options available to nonimmigrant visa holders, but despite the requests by many immigrant workers and supporting organizations, the notice does not provide guaranteed flexibility for those facing hardships due to COVID-19. USCIS shares the following options available:

  • Apply for an Extension. Most nonimmigrants can mitigate the immigration consequences of COVID-19 by timely filing an application for extension of stay (EOS) or change in status (COS). U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to accept and process applications and petitions, and many of our forms are available for online filing.
  • If You File in a Timely Manner. Nonimmigrants generally do not accrue unlawful presence while the timely-filed, non-frivolous EOS/COS application is pending.  Where applicable, employment authorization with the same employer, subject to the same terms and conditions of the prior approval, is automatically extended for up to 240 days after I-94 expiration when an extension of stay request is filed on time.
  • Flexibility for Late Applications. USCIS reminds petitioners and applicants that it can consider delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic when deciding whether to excuse delays in filing documents based on extraordinary circumstances.

USCIS also notes that in certain situations, a late filing request for an extension or change of status may still be excused after the authorized period if it was “due to extraordinary circumstances beyond their control, such as those that may be caused by COVID-19.” The notice states that the “length of the delay must be commensurate with the circumstances” and that the individual must submit “credible evidence to support their request” which will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Visa Waiver Program/ESTA Update

Unlike visitor’s visas or other nonimmigrant visas, entrants in the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program are not eligible for extensions. However, the regulations provide for the concept of “Satisfactory Departure” under certain emergency situations, such as COVID-19. If Satisfactory Departure is approved, the individual must depart the U.S. within the approved period to be regarded as having made a timely departure without overstaying the allowed time. We previously explored options for requesting satisfactory departure for up to 30 days by contacting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the appropriate port of entry.

In USCIS’s announcement on processing delays, the agency also states that for Visa Waiver Program entrants who have already been granted satisfactory departure but they are unable to depart within the 30 day period because of COVID-19 travel issues, USCIS can temporarily provide an additional 30-day period of satisfactory departure. To request satisfactory departure from USCIS, a VWP entrant should call the USCIS Contact Center.

Visit Challa Law Group’s COVID-19 Resource Page for Employers & Foreign Workers to read about other critical immigration updates or email us at info@challalaw.com with any questions.

USCIS Grants Extensions for RFE and NOID Responses

Responses Accepted Within 60 Days of Deadlines

UPDATE on 3/30/2020: USCIS Clarifies & Expands Flexibility for RFE, NOID, NOIR, NOIT Responses

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that due to the ongoing effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency was “adopting measures to minimize the immigration consequences associated with responding to requests for evidence (RFEs) and notices of intent to deny (NOIDs) dated between March 1 and May 1, 2020.

Any responses to RFEs or NOIDs with deadlines between March 1 and May 1, 2020 that are submitted within 60 calendar days after the deadline, will be accepted for consideration by USCIS. The agency stated additional updates will be provided as the situation develops.

Over 200 organizations, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s New York Chapter, have written to the the U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to request “policies and protocols to fully and effectively respond to the crisis currently being caused by COVID-19.” The letter states that “immigrants and the providers and advocates who help them to navigate these systems will suffer serious hardships that raise due process concerns.”

The letter has requested that courts be closed and deadlines extended. Some of the additional requests are below:

  • Address “age-outs” caused by COVID-19
  • Issue automatic work authorizations and renewals during the length of the pandemic
  • Suspend the issuance of new RFEs and NOIDs until offices resume normal operations
  • Waive requirements for original signatures and original photographs

USCIS recently announced that reproduced original signatures are acceptable for forms that typically require original “wet ink” signatures. We will keep you posted on additional updates to these requests to the respective agencies.

Visit our COVID-19 Resource Page for Employers & Foreign Workers to read about other critical immigration updates.

E-2 Treaty Investor Visa Available to Citizens of Israel

On May 1, 2019, the E-2 visa will be extended to Israeli citizens for the first time. The E-2 Treaty Investor is a nonimmigrant visa that allows an individual to invest in a U.S. business and then enter the U.S. to develop and direct the business. The E-2 visa holder must demonstrate a minimum of 50% ownership of the enterprise or “operational control through a managerial position or other corporate device.”

While roughly the same size as the U.S. state of New Hampshire, Israel boasts a successful high-tech industry. According to the U.S. Embassy website for Israel:

“U.S. firms have been a big part of the Start-Up Nation story, with U.S. companies establishing two-thirds of the more than 300 foreign-invested research and development centers in Israel.  Israeli firms, meanwhile, represent the second-largest source of foreign listings on the NASDAQ after China – and more than Indian, Japanese, and South Korean firms combined.”

Similar to the EB-5 investment requirements, the E-2 requires the investor’s funds to be “at risk” or subject to loss if the investment is not successful. Unlike the EB-5 Immigrant Investor visa, the E-1 and E-2 visas allow foreign nationals of certain treaty countries to invest in the United States without a set minimum investment, as long as the investment meets several criteria to determine if it is substantial.

In addition to the substantiality test, the enterprise must exceed the marginality test and the E-2 visa applicant must be in a position to develop and direct the enterprise, through special qualifications that make the employee’s services essential to the efficient operation of the business.

Visit our website for an introduction to the E-2 Treaty Investor visa and determine if your intended U.S. investment plan meets the E-2 requirements. Contact us at info@challalaw.com if you have any questions.

An Introduction to the E-2 Treaty Investor Visa: Marginality, Substantiality, Essentiality & Other Key Tests

The E-2 Treaty Investor visa allows an individual to invest in a U.S. business and then enter the U.S. to develop and direct the business. The E-2 visa holder must demonstrate a minimum of 50% ownership of the enterprise or “operational control through a managerial position or other corporate device.” Similar to the EB-5 investment requirements, the E-2 requires the investor’s funds to be “at risk” or subject to loss if the investment is not successful.

Essentiality of E-2 Employee

The E-2 visa also emphasizes that an applicant should have “special qualifications” or “skills which make the employee’s services essential to the efficient operation of the business.” The application must demonstrate that the individual not only that possesses the necessary special qualifications, but also establishes the length of time those skills may be needed for the successful and efficient operation of the U.S. enterprise. This essentiality of the potential E-2 employee may be measured by:

  • The degree of proven expertise in the employee’s area of operations
  • Whether others possess the employee’s specific skills
  • The salary that the special qualifications can command
  • Whether the skills and qualifications are readily available in the United States.

Impact of U.S. Workers

While the E-2 visa does not require a labor certification from the Department of Labor, USCIS does take into consideration the availability of U.S. workers when determining the degree of specialization and essentiality of the employee to the business. For example, an individual bringing a new technology to the U.S. may have specialized skills directly relating to the manufacturing, sales, and distribution of that technology, qualifying him or her for an E-2 visa. Additional evidence to support this narrative could be requested from U.S. labor organizations, industry trade groups, local or state chambers of commerce or other organizations with access to data on labor availability. It is important to note that there is no regulatory requirement that an essential employee have previously worked with the E-2 treaty enterprise. The only instance that previous employment has an affect on the application, is if the claim is being made that the necessary skills can only be obtained through that particular employment.

Short Term vs. Long Term Essentiality

When crafting the narrative of your E-2 visa application, we will consider your intended involvement in the ongoing operations of the U.S. entity. There may only be a need for the E-2 employee to come to the U.S. for a short period of time to direct the start-up operations or to train and supervise employees with specialized functions. For a short term need, the application might demonstrate that an employee is essential based on his or her knowledge with overseas operations or technologies. Evidence should demonstrate that these short-term employees are initially involved in the effort to train U.S. workers within a year or two as their own replacements.

The E-2 visa can be granted at a maximum initial stay of two years, but is renewable in various time increments depending on the nature of the underlying treaty with the country of the visa holder. Since there is no maximum limit to the number of extensions that can be granted, many business owners utilize the E-2 for a longer-term stay to continue to direct the enterprise. As long as the application demonstrates the individual has special qualifications that require his or her continuous presence in business activities, such as product development or providing a service not commonly available from U.S. workers, there is no requirement for training a U.S. worker replacement.

Case Study: Matter of Walsh and Pollard

In the 1980s, General Motors needed automotive engineers to design a new fleet of vehicles. After first attempting to meet their labor needs within the U.S., the company realized an additional need for engineers and turned to overseas for help. A British contractor made an investment as part of a strategy to open a U.S. office and then funnel designers for GM’s temporary labor needs using E-2 visas and establishing the designers’ essential skills. After the visas were approved, the then-INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of USCIS or United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) denied the engineers when they attempted to enter the U.S. The case made it to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which ruled on two key aspects of the E-2 visa:

  1. A small investment does not preclude the issuance of an E-2 visa as long as it is sufficient to “establish a viable enterprise of the nature contemplated” and
  2. The applicants whom were “highly trained, specially qualified, and essential to the corporation’s efficient operation” were qualified for the E-2 visa despite the fact they were not involved in “developing and directing the qualifying investment.”

The BIA determined that the automotive engineers had essential skills necessary to the long-term success of the enterprise and that the employees were not replacing U.S. workers in the near future, due to the extensive training that would be required to match the designers’ level of specialized skills.

Substantiality of the Business

The Foreign Affairs Manual points out some key aspects of the case when determining whether the business might meet the substantiality test, stating that “sometimes an investment of only a small amount of money might meet the requirement.” There is no standard investment amount, but the investment must meet the following:

(1)  Substantial in a proportional sense, as determined through the application of the proportionality test outlined below;

(2)  Sufficient to ensure the treaty investor’s financial commitment to the successful operation of the enterprise; and

(3)  Of a magnitude to support the likelihood that the treaty investor will successfully develop and direct the enterprise.

Proportionality of the Business

               The substantiality of the business is partly determined by using the proportionality test by weighing the amount of funds invested against the total cost of the business. The Foreign Affairs Manual describes the appropriate investment as an inverted sliding sale, with lower cost business requiring a higher percentage of the investment and a higher cost business requiring a lower percentage of qualifying investment. The manual also defines the cost of an established business as its purchase price and the cost of a new business is the sum of costs required to establish an operational business. When applying for the E-2 visa, this figure includes the investments already made and the estimates for the additional assets needed to run the business.

Marginality of the Business

The EB-5 visa clearly outlines the required job creation for visa attainment, but the E-2 visa applicant must prove that the investment is not in a “marginal” enterprise, i.e. the business must have the present or future capacity to generate income above that for the treaty investor and his or her family. This capacity to make a “significant economic contribution” should be “realizable within five years from the date the alien commences normal business activity of the enterprise,” according to the Foreign Affairs Manual.

Contributions of E-2 Visa Holders

As with any nonimmigrant or immigrant visa, the fundamental premise of the E-2 visa is that individuals who are granted these visas will provide value to the United States. For investment-type visas, often this value is quantified by the number of jobs created or the monetary contribution to the U.S. economy. While there are no specific numeric requirements for job creation or continued investment levels, an E-2 renewal application that demonstrates these accomplishments is more likely to establish the essentiality of not only the employee to the enterprise, but of the enterprise to the continued economic health and growth of the United States economy.

Request a copy of the E-2 qualifying countries by emailing us at info@challalaw.com.

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.