Terabytes of text have already been generated in the course of extolling or excoriating President Obama for his November 20 Executive Actions on Immigration. The prolific foaming of bloviating mouths has mostly been prompted by the promise of deferred action and work permits for undocumented immigrants under the DACA and DAPA programs. Surprisingly, however, his equally profound measures to improve the legal immigration system have been lost in the GOP’s ongoing Sturm und Drang over what they dub “Executive Amnesty.”
Among these legal immigration reforms, an almost overlooked November 21, 2014 Presidential Memorandum (“Modernizing and Streamlining the U.S. Immigrant Visa System for the 21st Century“) invited the submission of individual and stakeholder recommendations to improve legal immigration. If the Obama Administration were to embrace the best of the recommendations submitted in response, many good things would flow from this crowd-sourcing initiative. Without involving or seeking the consent of Congress, the Administration could readily adopt a plethora of path-breaking innovations to our legal immigration system which would profoundly improve how this country welcomes and benefits from foreign strivers, entrepreneurs, scientists, students, investors and other worthy contributors.
As my colleagues, Gary Endelman and Cyrus Mehta put it recently:
At the end of the day, immigration policy is not only, or even primarily, about the immigrants but about how the United States can attract and retain the best and the brightest regardless of nationality who wish to join us in writing the next chapter of our ongoing national story. There are two ways to achieve progress. Congress can change the law, which it persists in refusing to do, or the President can interpret the existing law in new ways, which he has done.
The November 14 memorandum directed the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State to solicit proposals from stakeholders and the public to modernize the legal immigration and visa system. The Secretaries of DHS and DOS would then evaluate the proposals so submitted in consultation with several Cabinet members (the Attorney General, and the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, and Education), and other federal officials (the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Director of the National Economic Council, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy). The official invitation to submit ideas took the form of a December 30 Notice of Request for Information, which allowed the submission of up to 30 pages of commentary by January 29. The comment period has closed, and the proposals are now posted online for all to see.
Some of the most thoughtful suggestions, accompanied in many cases by convincing citation to legal authority, came from members of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers (ABIL); members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA); a collection of 16 business-immigration stakeholder organizations (the 16); two individuals, attorney Nicole Kersey of Kersey Immigration Compliance (KIC), and Don Crocetti, managing member of Immigration Integrity Group, LLC (IIG) who formerly served as Chief of the Fraud Detection and Nationality Security Directorate (FDNS) of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS); the American Immigration Council (the Council); the Society for Human Resource Management through its strategic affiliate, the Council for Global Immigration (CFGI); the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber); the International Medical Graduate Taskforce (IMGT); the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Global Workers Justice Alliance (GWJA).
Here are just a few of the many recommendations (accessible through the hyperlinks in the preceding paragraph) which I believe would comprehensively transform and improve America’s decrepit immigration system:
Improve access to justice. ABIL, AILA and the Council urged the Department of State (DOS or State) and U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) to grant every individual interviewed by a federal immigration official the right to the representation of an attorney (either in person or by electronic means, but still at no cost to the government). The right to counsel would extend to (a) visa applicants who are interviewed by a consular officer, (b) applicants seeking admission to the U.S. during secondary or deferred inspection who are interviewed by a CBP officer, and (c) petitioners seeking immigration benefits who are interviewed in the course of FDNS site visits by USCIS investigators. ABIL also urged State and DHS to create a pilot system of binding review of decisions by consular officers to refuse certain categories of visas (all immigrant visas and nonimmigrant refusals under the E-1 treaty trader, E-2 treaty investor, E-3 Australian specialty occupation worker, H-1B specialty occupation, L-1 intracompany transferee and O-1 extraordinary ability visa categories).
Develop a single body of “immigration common law” and revitalize the advisory opinion process. ABIL proposed the creation of a single administrative tribunal to hear appeals from decisions and adjudications by all federal immigration agencies, thereby consolidating the work of multiple federal appellate panels and reducing the complexity and inconsistency of precedent and non-precedent immigration law decisions. ABIL also proposed that State publish all of its now-secret Advisory Opinions which guide consular officers in visa determinations and that USCIS adopt a published IRS-style private letter ruling process whereby the party seeking written guidance on the legal consequences of a particular set of facts would receive a binding interpretation but other stakeholders might benefit from the agency’s non-binding guidance in analogous circumstances.
Prohibit relitigating prior USCIS decisions granting employment-based immigration benefits. The 16, the Chamber, AILA and CFGI proposed that USCIS give “binding deference” to the agency’s previous grants of employment authorization whenever a petition seeking extension of the employer’s petition and of the worker’s nonimmigrant status involves the same employer, same employee, and same job duties, unless an adjudicator can establish, and articulate with specificity, fraud or clear gross error. Such a change would necessarily reduce the burdensome and frequent requests for additional evidence (RFEs) and introduce a welcome measure of reliability, consistency and predictability to the process of extending the work permission of nonimmigrant employees. To make this change, USCIS would need to adopt IIG’s proposal to speedily transition away from its “antiquated paper environment, supported primarily by legacy INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] mainframe systems and databases with little to no interface or advance search or analytics capabilities” and instead it must “automate” “all USCIS systems and filing processes”.
Hasten the issuance of work visas, immigrant visas, green cards, work authorization and international travel permission. Many commenters (including ABIL, AILA, CFGI and the 16) proposed that State and USCIS adopt a range of proposals which, in various ways, would (a) count only the principal worker and not the dependents when reporting and applying the cutoff date on available immigrant visas as announced in State’s Visa Bulletin, (b) recapture the hundreds of thousands of immigrant visas from prior years that were unused and thus squandered because of inadequacies in the way green-card quotas were allocated between DOS and USCIS, (c) allow for much earlier acceptance of employment-based applications for adjustment of status, thereby hastening the issuance of Employment Authorization Documents (EADs) and Advance Parole travel authorization, and (d) plug gaps in the grant of employment authorization by extending it for longer periods or on an interim basis to more categories, e.g., persons in U visa status, applicants for renewal of EADs, and persons holding employment-based work-visa status in nonimmigrant categories omitted by the 240-day period of interim employment authorization allowed in the Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification) regulations. GWJA also urged that USCIS, upon approving an immigrant visa petition, automatically forward the notice of appearance (Form G-28) to State’s National Visa Center so that prolonged delays now experienced in the recognition of attorney representation would be eliminated.
Clarify and liberalize the rules on immigration successorship in interest. ABIL proposed that DHS and DOS adopt a successor in interest principle that would (a) expand the range of situations in which corporate restructurings are recognized for immigration purposes, thereby allowing uninterrupted employment authorization and the preservation of pipeline employment-based immigrant visa and adjustment of status benefits, and (b) dispense with current USCIS interpretations whereby immigration successorship requires an “assumption of all or some liabilities, whether they be solely immigration-related liabilities or liabilities associated with the occupational classifications of the particular beneficiaries affected by the change in corporate circumstances.”
Adopt improvements to promote investment, entrepreneurship, job creation and business innovation. Many of the commenters suggested changes to spur investments, business activity, innovation and job creation. CFGI proposed the creation of a “Robust Trusted Employer Program” which would allow faster and more streamlined approvals of requests for immigration benefits submitted by “any employer that can demonstrate a track record of compliance with applicable [immigration] laws.” ABIL urged the Obama Administration to “create an agency to support and protect the economic benefits of immigration within the Department of Commerce or another cabinet department.” AILA and ABIL proposed that DHS “create explicit immigration protections and benefits for small businesses,” e.g., by (a) rescinding the Neufeld Memorandum (which effectively abolished the distinction, long recognized in precedent decisions that, for immigration purposes, a corporation is to be considered distinct from its owners), (b) clarifying that the customary attributes of start-ups and small businesses are not necessarily indicia of fraud, and (c) adopting in formal policy guidance and ultimately in regulations the formal recognition that the characteristics of start-ups as set forth in USCIS’s Entrepreneur in Residence training materials are acceptable examples of legitimate forms of business operations and activities. ABIL and AILA also proposed numerous improvements that should be implemented by USCIS’s EB-5 Immigrant Investment Program Office (IPO) in order to promote the IPO’s announced goals of enhanced transparency of eligibility criteria, speedier case processing and the safeguarding of EB-5 program integrity.
Enhance immigrant and nonimmigrant protections and promote immigration integrity. A number of commenters suggested that DHS and DOS should ease eligibility requirements or offer enhanced benefits to individuals seeking or holding a particular visa status. IMGT offered a range of suggestions to improve the lot of foreign medical graduates (FMGs) including, among other proposals, H-1B cap gap relief for FMGs, clarification that J-2 dependents of FMGs are not subject to the two-year, home-country, physical-presence requirement applicable to J-1 FMGs, and clearer and more expansive interpretations of (a) “affiliated or related” parties eligible for exemption from the annual H-1B quota, and (b) requirements for the physician national interest waiver. GWJA also suggested several improvements, including, for example, enhanced protections available to individuals who have applied for or hold U visa status, job “portability” benefits for H-2B workers, greater age-out protections for dependents in VAWA cases, and an obligation undertaken by DOS to provide more explicit statements of the actual grounds for a visa refusal and not merely uninformative citation to the general ineligibility ground of denial found at Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) § 214(b). CAP urged DHS and DOS to improve transparency and reporting of data on LGBT individuals who seek or hold refugee admission or asylum status. Don Crocetti of IIG suggested that USCIS automate immigration case processing and build “a person and organization centric data system complete with electronic filing and web-based interviews” — a system which “contains advanced and ‘Big Data’ analytics to support a proactive anti-fraud operation.”
Freeze I-9 and worksite enforcement until USCIS has decided all DACA/DAPA applications for work permission. Nicole Kersey of KIC, along with ABIL, proposed that the DHS Secretary cause U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to suspend and defer, on a temporary basis, worksite investigations and enforcement of certain employer-sanctions provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (relating to the maintenance of Forms I-9 and the duty of employers to refrain from knowingly hiring or continuing to employ unauthorized workers). The temporary freeze would end, they proposed, once USCIS certifies that it has decided all applications for work permission under the DACA and DAPA program. The purpose of the proposed deferral of ICE enforcement, Ms. Kersey and ABIL explained, would be to avoid actions that might undermine the President’s goals of maintaining family unity in mixed-status households and encouraging eligible DACA and DAPA applicants to “get right with the law” and “come out of the shadow.” These laudable Presidential purposes, the proponents maintained, would be jeopardized if ICE — by virtue of a worksite enforcement action — were to impose a duty on employers to fire unauthorized workers who may ultimately receive employment permission.
Improve Federal Immigration IT Infrastructure. AILA suggested several IT enhancements, including USCIS acceptance of online payment of filing fees, standardization of web-published protocols and response times to email queries submitted to consular officers at posts worldwide, and permitting additional functionality in the “myUSCIS” Case Status Online query system by allowing access to the actual RFE or notices of intent to revoke or deny a petition issued rather than merely viewing a report that an RFE or notice has been issued (which must then await delivery by snail mail). In addition, ABIL and AILA suggested that — in the words of the AILA comment — “As USCIS continues to develop ELIS [the USCIS Electronic Immigration System] and expand its functionality to other forms and uses, it would be in the agency’s best interest to reach out to vendors and large-scale users, including AILA, for regular usability testing and feedback.” ABIL proposed a variety of additional IT suggestions:
- DHS (USCIS and CBP) DOL (the Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC)) and DOS (the Bureau of Consular Affairs [BCA]) should work to achieve interoperability for users so that employers, petitioners and applicants for immigration benefits, lawyers, law firms and organizational stakeholders such as universities need not be forced to re-enter the same data into disparate, siloed systems;
- All possible questions in online forms that function as a database, such as the BCA’s DS-160, where distinct questions appear as determined based on earlier answers to prior questions, should be published and available in full with a cross-referencing of questions and answers by visa category so that the public, as contemplated by the Paperwork Reduction Act, can know in advance what information to assemble.
- All electronic forms should provide the opportunity to expand on or clarify an answer to any question on the form in data fields permitting unlimited entry of text, since many questions cannot be answered truthfully and fully with, for example, a simple “yes” or “no” reply. Many such questions require the application of fact to law and thus require an answer that is consistent with applicable law. As currently configured, these forms invite a later accusation by federal immigration authorities of, inter alia, a willful, material misrepresentation under INA § 212(a)(6)(C), a falsely made document under INA § 274C(f), or a false statement under 18 U.S.C. § 1001;
- The attorney for an employer (with authorization of the subject individual employee or family member) should be allowed to access and download the electronic I-94. As the CBP e-I-94 system now is configured, only the applicant for admission who is ultimately admitted, or his or her attorney, can access the database and retrieve the I-94. Many large corporations centralize the management of their foreign employee’s maintenance of immigration status through counsel. Without access to the e-I-94 system by corporate counsel, this process is severely impeded and the prospect of an inadvertent violation of the unlawful-presence 3- and 10-year bars could occur; and
- Online visa application[s] and [USCIS] immigration forms should allow the user to move from one screen to the next without completion of all relevant data requested in the screen. Often, some but not all information is not presently available. The online systems should also allow saving, downloading, and emailing partially completed forms so that information already provided need not be required to be re-entered again.
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Since other commenters’ proposals were not summarized, and additional comments of the submitters identified above may have been given unintentional short shrift, I encourage all immigration stakeholders to spend as much time as possible reading the full set of comments and then, using all forms of social and traditional media, to focus public attention on the innumerable ways that DHS, DOS and the several agencies that administer federal immigration laws can optimize our nation’s legal immigration system. It is broken; so let’s make the Administration fix it.