USCIS issued a policy memorandum to increase scrutiny of H-1B petitions for computer-related positions and an announcement regarding increased H-1B employer site visits—what will these changes mean for foreign worker visa programs?

In a policy memorandum dated March 31, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it is formally rescinding the 2000 Immigration and Naturalization Guidance Memo on H-1B Computer Related Positions issued to Nebraska Service Center employees adjudicating H-1B petitions. USCIS considers the 2000 memo to adopt an “obsolete” view of the types of computer-related occupations that qualify as specialty occupations for H-1B purposes (based on the memo’s inaccurate reading of the Occupational Outlook Handbook) and also to not “properly” apply the regulatory criteria that govern qualification for H-1B status. Specifically, the policy memorandum calls attention to the fact that the rescinded memo, while observing that “most” computer programmers hold bachelor’s degrees, did not note in which “specific specialties” such degrees were held. The rescinded memo is also criticized for not mentioning that only “some” computer programmers hold degrees in computer science or information systems, and for inaccurately presenting the fact that some jobs held by computer programmers require only two-year or associate’s degrees. The memo is further criticized for not clarifying that entry-level computer programmers will generally not qualify for H-1B status. Thus, the policy memorandum concludes that an H-1B petitioner cannot rely on the Occupational Outlook Handbook to establish that a computer programmer position is a specialty occupation and that “other evidence” must be provided to establish the specialty occupation.

Several immigration lawyer groups have raised concerns that this new policy memorandum may constitute a first step by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to carry out the previously announced intentions of the presidential administration to make foreign worker visa eligibility more restrictive. The new memorandum, by withdrawing a little-known memo, may well make it more difficult for H-1B petitions filed for persons working in computer-related positions to be approved. Its practical effect is that companies in the IT industry seeking H-1B status for their employees will likely have to prove that the positions at issue are not entry-level computer programming positions and that the employees’ degrees and education are specifically related to such positions. Extensive Requests for Evidence (RFEs) seeking such proof are expected to become commonplace, as are denials for failure to offer such proof. As an indication of the scrutiny and limited focus that H-1B petitions for persons working in computer-related positions are now receiving, apparently a number of RFEs questioning the relevance of a degree in electrical engineering to a computer engineer position have been issued recently.

Since the policy memorandum took effect immediately, all H-1B petitions subject to the 2018 fiscal cap will be adjudicated under its provisions, even though no advance notice of its publication was provided.

USCIS Announces ‘More Targeted’ H-1B Site Visits

In a separate announcement issued April 4, USCIS stated that, effective immediately, it will embark upon a “more targeted” campaign of site visits to the worksites where H-1B beneficiaries are employed. Such site visits have been conducted by officers of the USCIS Office of Fraud Detection and National Security since 2009. Under the new initiative, H-1B site visits will focus on three categories of employers:

  • H-1B dependent employers (generally, employers with 51 or more employees with at least 15% of their workforce composed of H-1B beneficiaries)
  • Employers filing petitions for employees who will be assigned to work at the worksites of different companies
  • Employers whose business information cannot be verified through commercially available data (including, primarily, the Validation Instrument for Business Enterprises (VIBE) tool, which is based on a Dun & Bradstreet database

In addition, the announcement notes that “random” site visits will continue to occur.

The practical effect of this announcement may be that site visits to the workplaces of employers that do not fall into one of these categories will diminish, while site visits to employers that do fall into one of these categories will spike sharply and possibly be all but certain. All employers of H-1B beneficiaries are encouraged to adequately prepare for such site visits by ensuring that

  • information contained in H-1B petitions is at all times accurate and up to date, and
  • thorough site visit protocols that govern in detail how such visits will be handled are in place.

The announcement notes that the targeted site visit program is intended to identify employers engaging in fraud and abuse of the H-1B category, not to punish individual H-1B employees. To serve this purpose, USCIS has established an email address, reportH1Babuse@uscis.dhs.gov, that will allow both American and H-1B workers to notify the agency, presumably anonymously, of instances of such fraud and abuse.

What Do These Changes Mean?

On January 24, 2017, a draft executive order titled “Executive Order on Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs” was publicly circulated. This draft executive order essentially mandates a top-to-bottom review of all foreign worker visa programs to make certain that such programs are not administered in a way that creates a disadvantage to US workers. Although the order has not been finalized to date, it would appear that the presidential administration has started the process of reviewing certain visa classifications, and it is likely that DHS will issue further guidance on other visa classifications in the near future. We are monitoring and will continue to report on all developments.