Department of Homeland Security

[Blogger’s Note:  Today’s post originates from a discovery – a gem hidden in plain sight – first brought to my attention by  Gabe Mozes, my immigration partner at Seyfarth Shaw, and co-author of this piece. Great immigration lawyer that he is, Gabe raised a particularly galling example of how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) pursues extralegal, pretextual grounds, far afield from its supposed expertise, to deny employment-based requests for immigration benefits. In the birthing process, this post generated a slew of exchanges by email between us, much of it involving a friendly dispute over the eventual title. Initially, I proposed, “USCIS ~ The ‘Expertly’ Inexpert Immigration Agency.” He parried with, “What Disclaimer? USCIS Ignores DOL Instructions Not To Use OOH for Legal Purposes.” I responded with the suggestion to add before “USCIS” in the title, “Sciolist” (“[one] who pretends to be knowledgeable and well informed”), or “Ultracrepidarian” (“one who is presumptuous and offers advice or opinions beyond one’s sphere of knowledge”). You get the point, we compromised. His genial if begrudging email acceptance expressed mild disappointment that the post below beats around the bush: “[While] I like your angle, my original intent was to be more direct and hard-hitting.  I may draft a separate one. The time for skirting around the edges is over.”  So stay tuned.]

 

In our increasingly complex and specialized world, we all seek out experts — be they plumbers, arborists, fertility specialists, immigration lawyers, or other categories of seasoned practitioners. Why? Because getting the right result is important. True or not, experts are usually seen as having more than ordinary knowledge because they are credentialed through education, training, skill, long experience, or a mélange of these attributes.

Reliance on experts — most people generally assume — is preferable to taking a chance on an amateur. This assumption underlies a venerable judge-crafted principle of administrative law known as the deference principle, i.e., if the words in a statute are ambiguous, courts will ordinarily defer to an administrative agency’s interpretations of its own regulations administering the law.

The “principle of deference to administrative interpretations” – on its face – makes logical sense, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in its long-standing precedent decision, Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 US 837 (1984) (Chevron). The principal rests on the hallowed concept of judicial restraint, and the recognition by the courts that whenever Congress enacts broadly applicable laws , it may also confer on relevant Executive Branch agencies the authority to interpret and implement what may later involve situations which Congress perhaps never anticipated:

[The deference principle applies whenever a] decision as to the meaning or reach of a statute has involved reconciling conflicting policies, and a full understanding of the force of the statutory policy in the given situation has depended upon more than ordinary knowledge respecting the matters subjected to agency regulations. Chevron, 467 US at 844. (Emphasis added.)

But what if a plumber, after merely skimming Arboriculture for Dummies, were to offer expert advice on how to cure diseased trees ? For a homeowner to defer to the plumber’s advice would be sheer folly.  Equally absurd would be if a seemingly infertile couple were to rely upon the guidance of an immigration lawyer expounding on advanced techniques of in vitro fertilization.

Unfortunately, however, ultracrepidarianism happens every business day at USCIS (the agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with determining eligibility for such immigration benefits as work visas, travel permits, green cards, and naturalization). USCIS’s Immigration Service Officers (ISOs or simply, adjudicators) routinely offer ill-informed proclamations about immigration issues which Congress has rightly tasked the DOL to address and resolve.

Sadly, this has been going on for decades, not only in USCIS but also at its agency predecessor, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), where the former INS General Counsel cautioned INS that it had no authority to interfere with decisions by Department of Labor (DOL) that an employer had violated DOL H-1B (specialty-occupation visa) regulations, and therefore must be debarred by INS from sponsoring employment-based requests for immigration benefits.  See, INS GENCO Opinion, CO 212(n)P (April 12, 1994).

For years now, USCIS’s ISOs have blindly and lazily “borrowed” from the hard work, expertise, data repositories, research materials, and regulations of the DOL, a distinct federal department with specialized immigration-related domain knowledge, experience and training over such employment-related matters as job requirements, wages, and working conditions.

One class of the USCIS adjudicators’ favorite pontifications are the inferences they draw from the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), a DOL Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publication intended to provide the public with “career information on duties, education and training, pay, and outlook for hundreds of occupations.”

When penning decisions denying employment-based immigration benefits, USCIS adjudicators unfortunately are wont to wax poetic about statements in the OOH as if they were spouting “thou shalt nots” from the Decalogue. For example, in response to U.S. employer visa petitions seeking the okay to employ or continue employing H-1B workers in specialty occupations, USCIS officers routinely issue Requests for Additional Evidence (RFEs) stating that the agency “routinely consults the Department of Labor’s [OOH] for information about the duties and educational requirements of particular occupations.” USCIS then uses the OOH description for a particular job, say a Management Analyst, to argue that the position does not qualify for an H-1B under the “specialty occupation” standards at 8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A). This is because ISOs interpret the OOH as saying that the job cannot be a specialty occupation since some employers are willing to hire persons with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in various academic majors, or that a small percentage of employers will accept someone with less than a baccalaureate degree.

The problem with the USCIS adjudicators’ wholesale lifting of OOH excerpts – which are often taken out of context or misquoted – is that ISOs completely disregard the BLS’s own published restrictions contained in its “Disclaimer” accompanying the OOH, which provides in relevant part:

[The] OOH provides a general, composite description of jobs and cannot be expected to reflect work situations in specific establishments or localities. The OOH, therefore, is not intended to, and should never, be used for any legal purpose. For example, the OOH should not be used as a guide for determining wages . . . BLS has no role in establishing educational . . . standards for any occupation. . . The education information in the OOH presents the typical requirements for entry into the given occupation and does not describe the education and training of those individuals already employed in the occupation. . . . [The] information in the OOH should not be used to determine if an applicant is qualified to enter a specific job in an occupation. (Emphasis added.)

Another illustration confirming USCIS adjudicators’ purloining of OOH excerpts is found in their common practice of rigidly relying on this publication when deciding whether long-delayed green card applicants can invoke the “job flexibility” benefits granted by Congress that permit workers to change jobs or employers without being required to go back to the end of the immigrant visa queue.  This “job-portability” law allows green card applicants to pursue career advancement despite USCIS or visa-quota backlogs of more than six months as long as the new job is in the “same or [a] similar occupational classification.” See, the USCIS Adjudicator’s Field Manual, Chapter 20.2(e), Note 5 (“ISOs may reference additional resources to determine whether [two] jobs are in the same or similar occupational classification(s), including, the DOL Bureau of Labor Statistics’ [OOH]”).

Unfortunately, USCIS adjudicators’ misbehavior in poaching from the DOL is not limited to the OOH. Yet another USCIS encroachment on DOL’s immigration turf involves reliance in the H-1B “Specialty Occupation” work visa category on an outdated “itinerary” requirement incorporated into agency regulations based on the immigration laws in existence in 1952, a rule intended to maintain agency oversight of the intra-U.S. meandering of athletes and entertainers (who have had their own visa categories, the O and P classifications, since 1990). Immigration litigator, Jonathan Wasden, in a tour de force complaint, ITServe Alliance v. USCIS, filed October 11, 2018 in the Federal District Court for the DC Circuit, calls out USCIS interloping in its recurrent attempts to define the H-1B “area of intended employment,” found in DOL regulations, even though USCIS only has statutory authority to determine if the job and the worker involve a specialty occupation.

Whatever the validity or benefit of the agency deference principle in other contexts, its application to the USCIS adjudicators’ mass appropriation and misapplication of DOL source materials must be stopped. USCIS must not be given Chevron deference when the DOL itself cautions that the OOH: (1) should “never” be used “for any legal purpose,” (2) “should not be used to determine if an applicant is qualified to enter a specific job in an occupation,” and (3) “does not describe the education and training of those individuals already employed in the occupation.”

Simply put, the courts or Congress should take USCIS out of the business of pilfering and impersonating DOL expertise.

On July 24, 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a press release confirming that its Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division had completed the second phase of a nationwide operation from July 16-20. HSI served 2,738 I-9 Notices of Inspection (NOIs[1]) to US businesses around the country after serving 2450 during its first phase earlier this year. In sum, HSI has now issued almost 5200 NOIs since the beginning of October 2017. Not only this, but HSI also has made 675 criminal and 984 administrative worksite-related arrests. These numbers clearly indicate that ICE takes worksite enforcement very seriously and companies should prioritize a commitment to compliance. Fines for knowingly hiring or continuing to employ unauthorized workers start at $559 per employee and can be as high as $22,363 for repeated offenses. Paperwork violations range from $224 to $2236. Companies may also face additional fines, penalties and forfeitures, and government contractors may face debarment from federal contracts.

In ICE’s press release, HSI reminded employers about its “three-pronged approach to worksite enforcement: compliance, form I-9 inspections, civil fines and referrals for debarment; enforcement, through the criminal arrest of employers and administrative arrest of unauthorized workers; and outreach, through the ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers, or IMAGE program, to instill a culture of compliance and accountability.”

These events have been expected and actually follow prior comments by HSI officials that we previously reported, confirming that 2018 will be a year of increased immigration enforcement.

Continue Reading Baby It’s Cold Outside: ICE I-9 Audits Increase Over 100 Percent

By: Angelo A. Paparelli

The familiar lines were drawn. Combatants clashed in a war of words, competing governance philosophies, conflicting laws, and judicial challenges – all in an age-old constitutional battle of federal power versus states’ rights.

This time around, however, the roles were reversed. Version 2018 is unlike the 1960s when extreme-right southern conservatives, claiming to champion states’ rights, defied but ultimately failed to stop federal efforts to protect civil rights. This time, the state of California passed three statutes under its police powers with the avowed purpose of promoting public safety and protecting undocumented state residents against a determined army of newly-unshackled federal immigration enforcement officers. And this time, the state mostly won.

Continue Reading From the Jails to the Streets, Courthouses and Worksites: California Takes on the Federal Immigration Police

Seyfarth Synopsis: Following the wave of Notices of Inspection (NOI) at 77 Northern California businesses last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents are continuing to spread the cheer with NOIs targeting businesses in Southern California this week.  Serving NOIs throughout the greater Los Angeles area, the inspections appear industry agnostic.  The NOIs delivered by HSI agents and auditors notify businesses that they must produce their employees’ Forms I-9, Employment Eligibility Verifications within 72 hours.  The notices often include a list requesting additional company information and documents as well.

Local HSI offices are keeping ICE’s Deputy Director Thomas Homan’s promise of increasing its activities not just across the nation but more specifically targeting sanctuary cities and states like California.  It is important to note that businesses receiving the NOIs are not all within the service, manufacturing, agriculture, or traditional “infrastructure” sectors. Employers across industries should take a look at their Form I-9s and overall immigration compliance – the time to figure things out is not during the 72 hours after a NOI is issued.

Continue Reading California Continues to Shine Under ICE’s Spotlight

By Dawn M. Lurie and Alexander Madrak

True to its word, last week Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents issued Notices of Inspection (NOIs) at seventy-seven Northern California businesses. ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents spread out across northern California, serving NOIs in Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose at the end of January. No employees or employers were arrested at the time; instead, HSI agents notified businesses that they are being audited and provided seventy-two hours to produce their employees’ Forms I-9, Employment Eligibility Verifications.

The worksite actions follow ICE’s Deputy Director Thomas Homan’s comments that ICE would increase its activities in California after designating itself an official sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants following the passage of AB 450. With Homan’s nomination to be the Director of ICE, these and other comments by Homan indicate ICE may very well follow through on its promises—both that enforcement will increase by “four to five times” this year and that California may bear a disproportionate brunt of the action.

Employers across industries should proactively prioritize addressing immigration compliance by:

  1. conducting careful internal assessments;
  2. conducting Form I-9 audits (with the assistance of competent counsel);
  3. reviewing and/or establishing procedures to ensure employees are prepared to deal with visits from ICE;
  4. creating and updating immigration compliance polices; and,
  5. providing training and resources in order to ensure the Form I-9 process is captured correctly.

Prioritizing immigration compliance today will prevent problems and minimize exposure tomorrow.


By: Dawn M. Lurie, Alexander Madrak and Greg Morano*

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued automatic extensions of Employment Authorization Documents (EADs) for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries from Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and most recently, El Salvador. Employers should be prepared to recognize these automatically extended EADs and correctly handle the resulting influx of Form I-9 updates.

What’s the Latest on TPS?

While the government is back in business, the path to immigration reform seems as tumultuous as ever. The chances to reverse the termination of TPS are slim, and the impact is slowly beginning to sink in for TPS beneficiaries and employers alike. An Immigration Forum Fact Sheet on TPS notes: “Recent data estimate that TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti contribute a combined $4.5 billion in pre-tax wages or salary income annually to our nation’s gross domestic product.”

What Do Employers Need to Know?

Continue Reading Auto Extension Influx: Automatic Extension of El Salvador TPS EADs

  1. By: Mahsa Aliaskari

Update: At midnight the federal government shut down.  We will keep employers updated as details of immigration related closings and the negotiations in Congress become available.

Seyfarth Synopsis: As we wait to hear the fate of yet another temporary extension to continue funding the government after midnight on Saturday January 20th – employers should know how a shutdown may impact processing of immigration petitions and immigration programs.

Continue Reading Déjà vu – Government Shutdown and Impacts on Immigration

By: Dawn M. Lurie and Alexander Madrak

With the recent slew of news from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) concerning Temporary Protected Status (TPS), it is important employers know how to update Forms I-9 for TPS beneficiaries.  Over the last several months, we reported on USCIS terminating TPS for El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Haiti while deferring a decision for Honduras.  The debate in Congress surrounding the loss of status to almost 300,000 individuals continues to intensify.  Employers are also affected by the phase out of TPS as they consider how to handle the TPS beneficiaries in their workforce, some of whom have been with companies for many years.

Continue Reading More Form I-9 Confusion for Employers: TPS and Limited Automatic Extensions