On March 18, 2016, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS) issued new policy guidance regarding how certain employment-based immigrants can change employers during the immigration process without jeopardizing the ability to obtain permanent residence.

In general, employer-sponsored immigration under the employment-based first (EB1), second (EB2) and third (EB3) preference immigrant visa categories requires the sponsoring employer and the immigrant to intend to work together in the job identified on the immigrant visa petition. A change of employer prior to approval of permanent resident status (popularly referred to as a green card) does not automatically terminate the residence application, but does call into question whether the required intent remains. The result is that immigrants are generally reluctant to change jobs prior to completing residence, even when other American employers are trying to recruit them.

In 2000, the US Congress recognized that slow processing by the USCIS (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS) harmed the ability of American employers to compete in the global market for key job skills, as immigrants chose other countries or were forced to leave the US because temporary visas expired before the USCIS completed its work. The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act of 2000 (AC21) created greater job flexibility for immigrants to change jobs if the USCIS failed to complete processing of the application to adjust status to resident within 180 days, and if the new job is in the same or similar occupation as the old job. The USCIS was delegated responsibility to issue regulations to implement this law.

Although the USCIS never went through the process mandated by law to issue implementing regulations, the agency issued three prior AC21 policy memoranda and a FAQ. The March 18, 2016, memorandum entitled “Determining Whether a New Job is in ‘the Same or a Similar Occupational Classification’ for Purposes of Section 24(j) Job Portability” (PM-602-0122.1) is the latest.

This memorandum revises the USCIS Adjudicators Field Manual (AFM) to instruct officers to focus on the Department of Labor (DOL) occupational classification assigned to the jobs or other material information. The factors to be considered are: the duties, job requirements (skills, experience, education, training, license/certification) and wages. Location and employer industry sector are not identified, although both can certainly impact wages and are logically relevant in that regard.

The DOL occupational classifications can be found at O*NET OnLine. The DOL’s Online Wage Library can help show how the same or similar occupational classification might result in a change of wage for different locations and over time.

Some EB2 and EB3 visa categories require a DOL alien employment certification (PERM). In these cases, the DOL occupational classification is determined by the DOL on the prevailing wage determination and on the PERM application. The memorandum places the burden of proof on the immigrant to establish the DOL occupational classification for the new job.

In contrast, there is no DOL determination for the EB1 visa category for outstanding professors and researchers (EB1B), or for the multinational managers and executives (EB1C) visa categories, which could make for less predictability or greater flexibility in the outcome. The memorandum places the burden of proof on the immigrant to establish the DOL occupational classification for these jobs.

Aliens of extraordinary ability (EB1A) and aliens immigrant based on the national interest waiver (EB2NIW) self-sponsor, and are not impacted by a change of employer and the new memorandum.

In cases where the jobs have different occupational classifications, but fall within the same broad occupation, the memorandum states the officer may treat such evidence favorably. It also states that such positions will generally be considered to qualify as similar if they largely share the same duties, experience and education requirements.

The memorandum provides further guidance for career progression. While movement from junior to senior levels within the same occupation are likely to qualify, movement form a non-managerial to a managerial role will require a showing that the immigrant remains primarily responsible for the same or similar functions. The memorandum gives a favorable result in an example of a software developer being promoted to computer and information systems manager, while rejecting the promotion of a cook to food service manager, citing the different focus of the jobs as the defining characteristic.

Read the full policy memorandum at the USCIS website.