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Articles Posted in Student Visas

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As previously reported, the Department of Homeland Security was given a 90-day extension earlier this year, by the Federal District Court of Columbia to issue a new replacement rule for the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) program to continue. The STEM OPT program, a program that had been in place since 2008, was invalidated earlier this year following a court order which required DHS to publish a new replacement rule governing the program by February 12, 2016. In response to the court order, DHS requested an additional extension arguing that exceptional circumstances warranted additional time to review the overwhelming number of comments received during the comment period. The court granted the extension, giving DHS until May 10, 2016 to implement a final rule. On March 2nd, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced that review of the new OPT STEM replacement rule had been completed. DHS is expected to submit the final rule in the federal register within the next few weeks. The new rule will take precedence over the 2008 OPT STEM rule that had been in place previously. The final rule is not expected to be implemented until May 10, 2016. Once the final rule is published, we will have a better idea of where applicants will stand in relation to pending applications for employment authorization and receiving 7-month OPT extensions.

Please continue to follow our blog for more information. If you require legal advice please contact us for a consultation. 

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Last week, the Senate held a hearing scrutinizing the temporary H-1B skilled worker program, the second hearing of its kind within just one year. At issue was the protection of American jobs and dissatisfaction with the program among conservatives in the Senate, who believe the program has caused job displacement at the expense of thousands of Americans. Beyond their own political convictions, Republican Senators eyeing the White House, have also scrutinized the H-1B visa program, in order to appease voters who, maintain a hard line stance on immigration.

During the hearing, the Senate Judiciary panel considered testimony questioning the integrity of the H-1B visa program. Many witnesses accused their employers of violating the conditions of the program, alleging that their employers sought to replace American workers with foreign workers by utilizing the H-1B visa program to pay those workers lower wages. This accusation is troublesome for various reasons. Firstly, it is well known that the H-1B visa program requires an employer to hire a foreign worker in a specialty occupation only when the employer cannot obtain the necessary skills and abilities to perform the specialty occupation within the American workforce. H-1B workers must possess distinguished merit and ability, and demonstrate their qualifications through the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent, in the intended field of employment. Secondly, the H-1B visa program contains provisions which are specifically designed to protect similarly employed American workers from any adverse affects suffered from the employment of temporary foreign workers. Consequently, there are also provisions which aim to protect H-1B nonimmigrant workers from H-1B violations. One of those provisions includes the requirement that American employers pay temporary H-1B workers at least the ‘prevailing wage,’ the average wage paid to similarly employed workers (experience and qualifications) in a specific occupation in the area of intended employment. This would mean that any employer seeking to use the H-1B visa program for the purposes of obtaining ‘cheap foreign labor’ or to replace American workers would be violating the conditions of the H-1B visa program altogether.

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On January 23, 2016 a Federal District Court Judge for the District of Columbia granted the federal government an extension for the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) program to resume, giving the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) more time to issue a new replacement rule. The STEM OPT program had been in place since 2008, but was recently invalidated following a court order requesting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to issue a new replacement rule by February 12, 2016. DHS responded by requesting an additional 90 days to implement the final rule by May 10, 2016.

As part of their request, the federal government argued that exceptional circumstances existed to warrant the extension. This was owed to an unprecedented amount of comments received by DHS, that could not be reviewed and analyzed by the February deadline. According to the Administrative Procedures Act, DHS is required to publish a final rule 60 days before its effective date. During the comment period alone, DHS received over 50,000 comments that were nearly impossible to review and revise by the February deadline. Although plaintiffs for the original suit challenged the court stating that the court did not have jurisdiction to grant the extension, the court agreed with the federal government. The court stated that it did indeed have jurisdiction over the motion and that the undue hardship that STEM OPT participants and employers would experience, absent a new replacement rule, constituted an exceptional circumstance to warrant the extension. It is estimated that approximately 434,000 international students might benefit from the new replacement rule.

Presently, 23,000 students are STEM OPT participants, while approximately 2,300 more individuals are dependents of these participants. Had the extension been denied, thousands of students, their educational institutions, and their employers would be adversely affected. Litigation will continue over the validity and issuance of the replacement rule. If your initial OPT will expire between now and the May 10 deadline, and you are still within the 120-day filing window, you should apply for your 17-month extension as soon as possible, to benefit from the 17-month extension under the 2008 OPT rule. If your OPT will expire on or after May 11, and you are still within the 120-day filing window, you may be able to receive a 17-month extension. Once the new rule is in place and you are outside of the filing window, you will need to wait for the new rule and apply for benefits under the new rule. The new rule is expected to be published by March 11, 2016.

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What is the H-1B Visa? The H-1B visa is a work visa that is awarded on a lottery basis. The H-1B visa program allows American companies and/or qualifying organizations to employ foreign workers to fill specialty occupations temporarily. The foreign worker must posses a combination of education, specialized training, and/or experience that is equivalent to training acquired by the attainment of a U.S. bachelor’s or higher. The H-1B program was first enacted by Congress with the intention of helping American employers seek out distinguished foreign workers, possessing the skills and abilities necessary to perform the duties of the specialty occupation. The H-1B program has remained popular because it has allowed American employers to remain competitive and provides highly skilled foreign workers a path to permanent residence.

The provisions of the H-1B visa program allow qualified foreign workers to attain temporary employment having met specific requirements. H-1B visa recipients typically work in the STEM fields as scientists, engineers, computer programmers, software developers, business analysts, etc. although fashion models are also classified under the H-1B category.

USCIS will begin to accept H-1B cap-subject petitions for fiscal year 2017 beginning April 1, 2016. April 7, 2016 is the absolute deadline to file an H-1B cap-subject petition. Please note: employers cannot file an H-1B petition for an employee more than 6 months before the employee’s intended start date. If accepted, H-1B visa workers can begin employment by October 1st. The H-1B visa is issued for up to three years but may be extended for another three years.

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As previously reported, the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) rule that had been in place since 2008, was invalidated following a court order requesting the Department of Homeland Security to issue a new replacement rule. The court gave the DHS until February 12, 2016 to come up with a replacement rule in order for the STEM OPT program to continue. In order for a new replacement rule to be put in place, DHS was required to publish the final rule 60 days before its effective date, according to procedural rules established by the Administrative Procedures Act. In order to meet such a deadline, DHS needed to have published the final rule by December 14, 2015 in order for it to be enforced by the February deadline. Luckily, the government filed a motion to extend the stay of the court order—to May 10, 2016, thus requesting an additional 90 days for the government to implement a final rule. In order for the motion to be successful the government must establish that exceptional circumstances warrant such relief to be given. The government has argued that there is an unprecedented amount of comments that cannot be reviewed and analyzed by the February deadline. During the comment period, DHS received over 50,000 comments that it must review, revise, and finally publish a final rule. The court is not expected to rule on the motion until early 2016. Meanwhile the plaintiffs of the original suit have filed an appeal before the DC Circuit Court arguing that the OPT program is not within the authority of the DHS.

If the motion is unsuccessful, the government may file a motion at the district court level or request a stay of the court’s injunction at the circuit court level. In any case, those affected should be aware that the government still has several avenues through which relief may be granted: (1) the Judge may grant the government its requested 90-day delay on the present motion; (2) the Judge may later grant a complete stay pending appeal of the injunction; or (3) the DC Circuit may stay the Judge’s injunction while it considers the merits of her rulings in the underlying case.  CIS has not yet released official correspondence explaining whether students affected will be granted a STEM extension after the February deadline.

For more information please contact us.

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By Yingfei Zhou, Esq. 

Last week, attorneys Yingfei Zhou, Esq. and Marie Puertollano, Esq. from our office attended the 28th AILA California Chapter Conference on Immigration Law held in San Diego, California. Together, they brought our audiences the latest updates on various issues discussed at the government open forums.

  1. USCIS I-797C Receipt Notices or I-797B Approval Notices without I-94 attached are not accepted by DMV as Proof of Legal Residence

On August 12, 2015, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle vacated the Department of Homeland Security’s 17-month STEM OPT Extension program that has been in existence since 2008. But because an immediate vacatur of the STEM OPT program would cause “substantial hardship” to thousands of F-1 students and create a “major labor disruption” for technology employers, the court allows the program to stay valid till February 12, 2016 and gives DHS in the next 6 months to issue a new rule and complete its notice and comment obligations by providing the public an opportunity to comment on any proposed rule.

For now, F-1 students with an approved STEM 17-month OPT extension remain eligible to work and USCIS should be still accepting and adjudicating STEM extension applications throughout the court’s stay of its ruling.

Any guidance or further action taken by the DHS and USCIS, we will update you via our blog.

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President Obama’s executive action announced on November 20, 2014 fell short in many ways than one for many people residing in the United States—both legally and illegally. Though a marginalized few have been allowed to come out of the shadows, some of the world’s best and brightest have been completely ignored by the executive action altogether. The United States would be quite a different place without our hard working immigrant population and without our foreign born innovators, movers, and shakers.

Obama’s announcement on November 20th notably left out any indication that the creation of a more expedient and efficient system would be considered— through which highly skilled and highly capable foreign workers would be able to more easily attain permanent residency and visas. Industry leaders in areas such as the Silicon Valley, seeking to employ such highly skilled and highly capable foreign workers for their startup companies, have expressed their concerns, forming groups such as FWD.us, albeit with the knowledge that Congress must act in order for an all-encompassing solution to be reached.

Though Obama’s speech shed little light on the topic, a memorandum released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security following the speech is much more informative. The memorandum announces that inventors, researchers, and founders of start-up enterprises who do not qualify for a national interest waiver, but who have been awarded what is considered ‘substantial’ financing by a U.S. investor OR who ‘hold the promise of innovation and job creation through the development of new technologies or the pursuit of cutting edge research’ can attain parole authority under section 212(d)(5) of the INA,6 on a case-by-case basis after being assessed by the DHS. Possessing parole in this situation would authorize extraordinary inventors, researchers, or start-up entrepreneurs to temporarily conduct their research or development of innovative ideas or their business while in the United States.

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By Ekaterina Powell, Esq.

Our office has received a few inquiries on the subject of volunteer work while on OPT and consequences of unemployment, and we have decided to address these issues in further detail for our readers.

Conditions of Employment while on OPT

Guidance following the Courts Decisions on Same Se Marriage continue to be released. The latest is regarding Student Visas.

The Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs has advised consulates that their officials may issue derivative visas based on same – sex marriage if the marriage is “recognized in the place of celebration.” That is, if the country where the couple married recognizes same – sex marriage as legal, then the U.S. government will recognize the union as legal for visa issuance, irrespective of where the couple plans to reside.

So from now on School DSOs and other officials may issue I-20 to same sex spouses of F1 and M1 students. These are ground breaking changes and we are excited. See the email below with the announcement.