It is no secret that the new administration under President Trump brings with it a fundamental shift in executive attitude with respect to both legal and illegal immigration. The transitional period leading up to January’s inauguration left employers and their foreign national employee populations mired in uncertainty regarding the future of former President Barack Obama’s largely immigration-friendly reforms. Shortly after entering the White House, President Trump made headlines by signing a series of controversial EOs that created a travel ban on nationals “from” seven primarily Muslim countries, eliminated visa interview waiver programs, suspended refugee programs, expanded removal grounds, eliminated federal funding for “sanctuary” cities, and directed the design and build-out of a wall at the United States/Mexico border. These EOs created discord among the government agencies that are charged with executing the EOs but were largely kept out of the drafting process. In addition, the EOs left employers scrambling to identify and support their impacted employee populations and cemented notions that the Trump administration has initiated a new immigration dialogue that will focus on enforcement and the impact of immigration on U.S. workers.

On January 27, 2017, a draft EO leaked. In this currently unsigned EO titled “Executive Order on Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs,” President Trump presupposes a broken immigration system that violates immigration laws and injures U.S. workers. The draft EO would therefore direct an investigation into, and a revamping of, our nation’s existing immigration framework. Among other things, the draft EO would mandate Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) review of all regulations that allow foreign nationals to work in the United States, and it would call for the rescission of all such regulations that are not in the (undefined) “national interest.” This draft EO, if signed, would also restrict the use of parole admissions, change how H-1B visas and immigrant numbers are allocated, expand employer site visit programs, and reform student practical training and J-1 summer work programs.

Many of the provisions of the draft EO seem directed at unraveling immigration reforms created under the Obama administration, including employment authorization for spouses of certain H-1B visa holders and recipients of benefits under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (more commonly known as “DACA”). However, the draft EO could also have far-reaching impacts on financial services employers. For example, a merit-based reallocation of H-1B visa numbers based on compensation may prove beneficial to financial services companies because it would likely favor the types of highly paid professional that financial services organizations typically hire. On the other hand, a merit-based system that favors degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, the so-called “STEM” degrees, might adversely impact those financial services firms that do not have large back and middle offices of employees with this academic background. Also, proposed restrictions in F-1 practical training programs may make it more difficult for financial services employers to recruit top talent out of U.S. universities, especially MBA programs that do not qualify for STEM benefits. Finally, the draft EO’s apparent crackdown on IT consultancies, which transfer relatively large numbers of foreign workers to the United States under the L-1 visa program, is also likely to have a trickle-down effect on financial services companies that rely on consultancies for project-based IT support.

Despite the sweeping rhetoric of the draft EO, employers should not expect many changes for 2017. Most of the changes delineated in the draft EO implicate existing laws and regulations that cannot be modified by an EO, and would require an expansive overhaul of our U.S. immigration system. Major programmatic changes would require congressional action that is unlikely in a fractured Congress. Any proposed regulatory changes would also require significant lead time, as they would be subject to notice and comment requirements under the Administrative Procedure Act and would likely be impacted by President Trump’s January 30, 2017, EO requiring rescission of two federal regulations each time a new one is established.

Although it made many fewer headlines, it is important to note in this context that many longstanding DHS policies and practices were recently codified in an expansive set of new regulations published by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) in November 2016, which by no coincidence took effect on January 17, 2017. These new rules, “Retention of EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 Immigrant Workers and Program Improvements Affecting High-Skilled Nonimmigrant Workers,” were intended to modernize and improve aspects of certain visa programs and clarify and codify longstanding DHS policies and practices with respect to the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act (“AC21”), which focuses, in large part, on H-1B and green card portability. Of particular note, the new rules:

  • clarify the use and establishment of priority dates;
  • expound H-1B portability and successive portability benefits;
  • confirm H-1B recapture and cap-exempt status eligibility requirements;
  • establish grace periods for certain job seekers;
  • describe eligibility for post sixth-year H-1B extensions under AC21;
  • clarify green card portability requirements and explain the purpose and use of new USCIS Form I-485 Supplement J; and
  • provide automatic employment authorization document (“EAD”) extensions for certain EAD holders, while eliminating USCIS’s obligation to adjudicate EAD applications within 90 days.

In the coming months and years, shifts in the nation’s approach to immigration policy are inevitable due to the change in administrations. Like the recent EOs, some may happen quickly and with very little notice. More substantial programmatic changes, however, will occur over time through the normal legislative and regulatory channels. In the immediate term, employers should advise their foreign national populations to take caution in all international travel and to expect delays in visa application processing and heightened screening across all inspection facilities. Employers should direct specific questions about the EOs, and questions about the impacts of the new USCIS rules and their interplay with the EOs, to their immigration counsel. In the longer term, financial services firms should expect an ongoing dialogue about the future of U.S. immigration law and, if they want the law to develop in a more positive direction, get engaged in the legislative and regulatory processes. Regardless of sentiments about how the conversation starts, these employers should recognize that opportunities exist to make the system better and more efficient. The time is therefore ripe for stakeholder advocacy.