[Blogger’s Note: This post is submitted as a necessarily-lengthy formal comment to the November 20, 2015 draft guidance of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, PM-602-0122, interpreting the phrase, “the same or [a] similar occupational classification” as used in the “increased job flexibility” provisions of Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) §§ 204(j) and 212(a)(5)(A)(iv). This comment incorporates by reference the content of all hyperlinked words and phrases below.
[By email: firstname.lastname@example.org
[Attention: Hon. León Rodriguez, Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
[SUBJECT: Comment of Angelo A. Paparelli to Draft Policy Memorandum PM-602-0122, “Determining Whether a New Job is in ‘the Same or a Similar Occupational Classification’ for Purposes of Job Portability, Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) §§ 204(j) and 212(a)(5)(A)(iv), ” as provided in Public Law 106-313, the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (AC21).]
An Immigration Opportunity Lost:
USCIS Stiffens on Job Flexibility
A frisson of fear coursed through me when I learned that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) would issue new policy guidance on “job flexibility” — the statutory right of some long-patient green card applicants to change jobs or careers within the same or a similar occupational classification. Congress introduced this limber possibility in the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (AC21), S.2045 , at a time when the legacy agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), still held sway over immigration-benefits decisions.
The better way — APA Notice-and-Comment Rulemaking. In lieu of USCIS policy guidance, my strong preference would have been that the successor immigration agency pursue notice-and-comment rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). I worried that the more relaxed exercise of issuing draft policy guidance and inviting public comments would become yet another sad episode in the continuing manifestation, particularly in the last ten years, of America’s new form of extra-constitutional government, the Administrative State. Increasingly, the Administrative State — a form of government by bureaucracy “under which [federal] administrative agencies are able to push policy toward their preferences rather than being wholly faithful to their legislative principals” — has become the unwelcome default mode of lawmaking and governance in this era of Congressional impasse.
The Road to Good Intentions. As USCIS forecasted in November 2014 (Item 4 in its list), the forthcoming interpretation would “[p]rovide clarity on adjustment [of status] portability [in order] to remove unnecessary restrictions on natural career progression and general job mobility [and] provide relief to workers facing lengthy adjustment delays.” (Emphasis added.) Despite these soothing words, I foresaw that an admittedly informal “flexibility” practice that had worked reasonably well under a generally relaxed interpretation announced in a series of five agency advisories, e.g., here and here, would ossify in the hands of the current crop of policy formulators at USCIS’s headquarters. Unfortunately, these fears have come home to roost. As this blog post and comment will show, the November 20, 2015 draft guidance, PM-602-0122, is as stiff and lacking in vitality as a corpse in rigor mortis.
The Pre-AC21 Status Quo. When Congress enacted AC21, it added two provisions promoting “job flexibility” for long-delayed adjustment of status (green card) applicants. In doing so, the House and Senate tipped their hats to Buddha’s fundamental Law of Impermanence, the precept that, over time, stuff happens. In other words, as William Gladstone, the noted British statesman, reportedly said, “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Congress knew when it passed AC21 that INS decisions on employment-based applications for adjustment of status, the benefit of gaining green card status while in the U.S., were taking far too long. In a predecessor bill to AC21, the “Immigration Services and Infrastructure Improvements Act of 2000” (S. 2586), Senator Dianne Feinstein, its lead author, along with several other senators, acknowledged what immigration stakeholders of the era had long known:
[Section 2](a) Findings.–Congress makes the following findings:
. . .
(3) The processing times in the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s other immigration benefits [cases, i.e., other than naturalization applications] have been unacceptably long. Applicants for family- and employment-based visas are waiting as long as 3 to 4 years to obtain a visa or an adjustment to lawful permanent resident status.
(4) In California, the delays in processing adjustment of status applications have averaged 52 months. In Texas, the delays have averaged 69 months. Residents of New York have had to wait up to 28 months; in Florida, 26 months; in Illinois, 37 months; in Oregon, 31 months; and in Arizona, 49 months. Most other States have experienced unacceptably long processing and adjudication delays. (Emphasis added.)
Clearly, Congress recognized when including in AC21 a “Title II” (also entitled, the “Immigration Services and Infrastructure Improvements Act of 2000”) that agency processing delays were forcing indentured adjustment applicants to wait years longer than the targeted 180-day period in the new law’s job-portability provisions:
[Sec. 202](b) POLICY.—It is the sense of Congress that the processing of an immigration benefit application should be completed not later than 180 days after the initial filing of the application, . . .
SEC. 203. DEFINITIONS.
In this title:
(1) BACKLOG.—The term ‘‘backlog’’ means, with respect to an immigration benefit application, the period of time in excess of 180 days that such application has been pending before the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
(2) IMMIGRATION BENEFIT APPLICATION.—The term ‘‘immigration benefit application” [includes] any application . . . to . . . adjust . . . status . . . under the Immigration and Nationality Act. (Emphasis added.)
Thus, the 106th Congress that enacted AC21 clearly knew about inordinate green card delays when it provided “job flexibility” relief to beneficiaries whose adjustment of status applications had been “long pending” — meaning those remaining unadjudicated for more than 180 days. Thus, it allowed a worker (sponsored for a green card in any one of four employment-based immigrant visa preference categories) to change jobs or employers after the adjustment application had been pending more than six months. The only AC21 condition imposed, however, is that the new position must be in the “same or [a] similar occupational classification” as the one described in the employer’s labor certification application or immigrant visa petition.
Need for a Regulation. Undoubtedly, publishing a proposed USCIS regulation and allowing formal comment from stakeholders before finalizing the rule would be a welcome approach. To be sure, prior agency guidance left a few lingering ambiguities requiring clarification and did not establish procedures which could and should be formalized in the rulemaking process. For example, some adjustment applicants probably remained tethered unhappily to Employer #1 because they feared that USCIS might disagree about job similarity and refuse the long-awaited green card. Moreover, as I proposed in “‘Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow’: Musings on Adjustment of Status Portability” (Musings), Employer #2 gets a windfall, the hiring of an incipient permanent resident already granted open-market authorization pending the adjudication of the adjustment application. But Employer #2 might still lose if costly training which it provided is wasted or its project engagements are impaired by an adverse USCIS adjudication on the same-or-similar-job issue. Even worse, Employer #1 — the firm that did the heavy trudging through the red tape and suffered the time required to traverse trap-laden Department of Labor (DOL) and USCIS rules, incurring legal fees and other costs en route — becomes collateral damage in the war for talent as it loses the services of the the porting worker.
The Equitable Solution — Cell Mitosis. APA rulemaking could thus provide necessary equitable relief to all three deserving parties (the adjustment applicant and Employer #1 on the one hand, and Employer # 2 on the other) by adopting some variant of the “cell mitosis” theory I proposed in Musings.
Just as cells dividing through mitosis inherit cellular DNA, pipeline immigration benefits could likewise be “inherited.” If mitosis principles were to be applied, the porting employee and Employer #2 would win because their cellular “inheritance” endows green card status, and in an increasingly overheated labor market, the employment of an in-demand worker. But Employer #2 should not lose everything, given that the DOL’s test of U.S. worker unavailability for the position in question had already been passed. Instead, Employer #2 could “inherit” (a) the earlier “priority date,” the place in the immigrant visa waiting line, which Employer #1 had reserved for the departing worker, and (b) the right to petition for a comparably qualified non-citizen candidate to fill the same, now-vacant job and to help the new hire and his or her immediate relatives gain green cards through adjustment of status. Thus, subject to any waiting period in the green-card queue and the same numerical limits of the immigrant visa quota, the porting employee, his or her equally qualified substitute, and Employers #1 and #2, would ultimately gain salutary immigration benefits. Why? Because they earned them under AC21 and a flexible, job-flexibility final regulation — a rule well within USCIS’s regulatory authority to prescribe.
To those at USCIS or elsewhere who might argue that Employer #2’s “inheritance,” as I’ve described it, would contravene the DOL regulation, 20 CFR § 656.12(a), prohibiting the “offer [of an approved labor certification] for sale, barter or purchase by individuals or entities,” this blogging promoter of applying mitosis principles in the immigration ecosphere would respond that that horse has already left the barn. In practical effect, AC21’s portability provisions already refute the DOL notion, also espoused in § 656.12(a), that an approved labor certification is not “an article of commerce.” The statutory and commercially-valuable right of adjustment portability effectively permits Employer #2 to “purchase” (though a “same or similar” job offer accepted by the porting worker) the intangible proprietary right to employ the individual as long as s/he has secured the interim adjustment benefit of a USCIS-issued Employment Authorization Card or another form of work permit.
The Need for Transparency. An APA-compliant proposed rule would also make all stakeholder comments publicly accessible on Regulations.gov, and USCIS would be required to elucidate in writing its rationale for accepting some suggestions and eschewing others. This transparency is unlike the current USCIS practice which provides no access to public comments and no explanation of why stakeholder proposals to change draft guidance were accepted or rejected in the final policy. Regrettably, this behind-the-walls process of willful obscurantism is likely to apply to the finalized USCIS adjustment-portability policy once the comment period for the November 20, 2015 draft guidance (the Draft) expires on January 4, 2016.
What’s Wrong with the USCIS Draft Memorandum? As a partial remedy to the agency’s opaqueness in declining to publish stakeholder comments on job-flexibility, this blog lists several objections and suggest improvements to the Draft:
1. The Draft ignores AC-21’s legislative history of abhorrence to immigration case backlogs and the resulting need for job flexibility. As noted above, Congress clearly saw and tried to mitigate the interrelated problems of bureaucratic delays and the likelihood of changed circumstances. Delays in adjustment processing had grown unreasonably — up to as long as 69 months. To lessen the foreseeable risk that changed job circumstances would cause the loss of green-card eligibility, Congress enacted a law which — in the words of USCIS quoted above — would ” [(1)] provide clarity on adjustment [of status] portability[,] [(2)] remove unnecessary restrictions on natural career progression and general job mobility, [and] . . . [(3)] provide relief to workers facing lengthy adjustment delays.”
2. The Draft cherry-picks an especially strict definition of the word, “similar,” which AC21 left undefined. Although the USCIS cites Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd., 132 S. Ct. 1997, 2002-03 (2012), for the principle that “when a term goes undefined in a statute, an agency ordinarily should ‘give the term its ordinary meaning,'” its proffered Draft violates the “ordinary meaning” principle. The Draft opts for the online version of a British dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary (OEM), publicly inaccessible except by paid subscription, which apparently defines “similar” as “having a marked resemblance or likeness.” USCIS also cites the second definition of “similar” in the American online dictionary, Merriam-Webster.com (MW), to mean “alike in substance or essentials” — a definition clearly less restrictive than the OEM‘s “marked resemblance” formulation. The Draft does not explain, however, why it omitted MW‘s first definition of “similar,” to wit, “having characteristics in common : strictly comparable [emphasis added].” Perhaps the omission is an example of the Administrative State where agencies “push policy toward their preferences.” This stricter definition, however, would contravene the Supreme Court more recent application of the rules of statutory construction, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, a 2014 decision which restricted administrative-agency interpretations of statutes in the following words:
Under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., . . . we presume that when an agency-administered statute is ambiguous with respect to what it prescribes, Congress has empowered the agency to resolve the ambiguity. The question for a reviewing court is whether in doing so the agency has acted reasonably and thus has “stayed within the bounds of its statutory authority.” . . . .
Even under Chevron‘s deferential framework, agencies must operate “within the bounds of reasonable interpretation.” And reasonable statutory interpretation must account for both “the specific context in which … language is used” and “the broader context of the statute as a whole.” Robinson v. Shell Oil Co. A statutory “provision that may seem ambiguous in isolation is often clarified by the remainder of the statutory scheme … because only one of the permissible meanings produces a substantive effect that is compatible with the rest of the law.” Thus, an agency interpretation that is “[inconsistent] with the design and structure of the statute as a whole,” does not merit deference. (Citations omitted; emphasis added.)
Instead of requiring the stricter showing of “marked resemblance,” USCIS should give the phrase, the “same or similar occupational classification,” its ordinary meaning, namely that a job would be “similar” to another if the subject matter expertise required in each of the two jobs, or the stated duties, skills and qualifications, are fairly “comparable.” Thus, the Shakespearean comparison (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) would not withstand a reasonable “comparability” analysis, but an engineer employed in a huge multinational enterprise who morphs in today’s gig economy into a self-employed engineering consultant or a professor of engineering seeking multiple teaching assignments, in most cases should (not the permissive “may” in the Draft) be accorded AC21 job-flexibility benefits.
3. The Draft misapplies and gives undue probative weight to the DOL’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system — a complicated, arbitrary and abbreviated composite of occupational classifications not developed for the legislative purpose of AC21 job-flexibility analysis. Rather the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) intended the SOC to permit statistical analyses for use by “Federal statistical agencies to classify workers . . . for the purpose of collecting, calculating, or disseminating data.” As the BLS explains the SOC system, however, its shortcomings for immigration adjustment job-flexibility analysis becomes apparent:
All workers are classified into one of 840 detailed occupations according to their occupational definition. To facilitate classification, detailed occupations are combined to form 461 broad occupations, 97 minor groups, and 23 major groups. Detailed occupations in the SOC with similar job duties, and in some cases skills, education, and/or training, are grouped together.
Although the Draft treats the SOC like a veritable Code of Hammurabi, or revered totem (“this memorandum instructs [Immigration Services Officers] on how they may use the [DOL’s] . . .SOC . . . codes”), USCIS should not prescribe it as the exclusive source of job-similarity comparisons.
4. The Draft fails to offer reasonable alternatives to the SOC. USCIS should offer a variety of alternative ways in which job-similarity, with the SOC listed as merely one of other acceptable measure of comparability, can be established by the “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof. For example, given that USCIS views the DOL as authoritative in the evaluation of job comparisons, then the AC21 flexibility analysis should also allow use of the Labor Department’s easily applied “substantially comparable” job or position test used in 20 CFR § 656.17(i)(5)(ii) of its PERM labor certification regulation:
A “substantially comparable” job or position means a job or position requiring performance of the same job duties more than 50 percent of the time. This requirement can be documented by furnishing position descriptions, the percentage of time spent on the various duties, organization charts, and payroll records.
The application of a “substantially comparable” or the equivalent “more than 50%” rule is already familiar to Immigration Service Officers who must routinely apply this test in many other visa categories. Consider the L-1A nonimmigrant and EB-1(3) tests for intracompany or multinational managers or executives whose employer must show that the foreign candidate has been and will be “primarily” engaged in managerial duties or executive responsibilities. Similarly, treaty-based E-1 visa applicants must show that the treaty national or entity is “principally”engaged in trade of goods or services between the treaty country and the United States. USCIS interprets the adverbs, “primarily” and “principally,” as requiring a greater than 50% bright-line test. Indeed, the “preponderance of the evidence” test applicable in virtually all immigration-benefits decisions is itself a “more than 50%” test. Furthermore, the “substantially comparable” test is much more easily and quickly decided than the abstruse SOC system. As 20 CFR § 656.17(i)(5)(ii) notes, the “substantially comparable” measure “can be documented by furnishing position descriptions, the percentage of time spent on the various duties, organization charts, and payroll records.”
5. The Draft expressly supersedes all job-flexibility discussions in five prior INS and USCIS advisories. By revoking prior guidance, the Draft makes it uncertain whether earlier pronouncements allowing self-employment as an approved basis for adjustment portability, holding that multinational managers or executives can port and/or disregarding as irrelevant any issue of whether Employer #2 can satisfy the otherwise applicable standard of “ability to pay” the wage stated in the labor certification or immigrant visa petition will reappear in the final job-flexibility policy guidance.
6. The Draft offers no explanation of procedures to tee-up the granting of a request for adjustment of status job-flexibility benefits. Given the Draft’s revocation of the prior adjustment portability policy memos, USCIS fails to say whether the usual way to invoke adjustment portability — the adjustment applicant’s submission, after having ported, of a letter from Employer #2 demonstrating job similarity — will continue to be required. The Draft also offers no clue whether USCIS will establish, before a porting occurs, a form-based process for the adjudication of a prospective change of job or employer. Clearly, USCIS should obviate the need for the current bet-the-green-card procedure whereby the adjudication of job similarity is only available after a change of job or employer has already occurred. Hence, the Draft’s lacunae of guidance on procedures and its dubious over-reliance on the SOC makes job moves by the adjustment applicant still the risky business it has always been.
* * * * *
President Obama and USCIS deserve praise for their desire to help adjustment applicants change jobs or employers more freely. Unfortunately, however, the agency’s chosen vehicle of movement — an unduly cramped interpretation of AC21’s job flexibility provisions, coupled with its unwarranted fixation on the SOC — will freeze in place AC21’s intended beneficiaries and thereby impair the virtuous economic goal of enhanced worker mobility. The USCIS should scrap the Draft and publish a proposed job flexibility regulation.