H-4 work authorization

On Friday, March 3, 2017, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a temporary suspension of the premium processing option for all H-1B petitions filed on or after April 3, 2017. This suspension includes Fiscal Year 2018 H-1B Cap cases, as well as cap-exempt petitions.

Premium processing is an expedited filing option for certain nonimmigrant and immigrant visa petitions.  Employers may submit a premium processing request on Form I-907 and pay an additional filing fee of $1,225 so that USCIS will take action on that petition within 15 calendar days. The premium processing option allows companies additional time to develop alternative employment strategies for its employees.  It also affords peace-of-mind for employer-sponsors and employee-beneficiaries. Most notably, premium processing reduces the risk of nonimmigrant status issues that may arise from an employee’s international travel plans.

USCIS stated that this suspension has been implemented in an effort to reduce overall processing times for regularly filed H-1B petitions, which are currently taking eight to 10 months to process. USCIS confirmed that the suspension is likely to last at least 6 months to allow adjudicators to catch up on the existing backlog.

Employees should contact HR, and companies are encouraged to work with their immigration legal counsel to evaluate options in light of the suspension.  Delayed processing times could affect continued employment eligibility as well as travel eligibility for H-1B employees.

USCIS has stated that it will accept an expedite request for an H-1B petition if the company can demonstrate that it meets at least one of the following criteria:

  • Severe financial loss to company or person;
  • Emergency situation;
  • Humanitarian reasons;
  • Nonprofit organization whose request furthers the cultural and social interests of the United States;
  • Department of Defense of national interest situation;
  • USCIS Error; or
  • Compelling interest of USCIS.
  • To demonstrate that a company’s need for an expedited H-1B approval falls under one of these criteria, significant documentary evidence must be submitted and the ultimate decision will be at the discretion of USCIS. Lane Powell will continue to evaluate options and provide updates.

With no advance warning, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) revised more than 40 forms on the Friday of the 2016 December long holiday weekend. The forms all have an effective date the same day the notice was posted on its website, December 23, 2016. For most of the forms, no previous editions are acceptable, except for the Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker.  However, USCIS has indicated that it may apply discretion when receipting forms sent around that date, rather than rejecting them outright. Affected forms include the following:

I-90, I-102, I-129, I-129CW, I-129F, I-130, I-131, I-131A, I-140, I-191, I-192, I-212, I-290B, I-360, I-485, I-485 Supplement A, I-525, I-539, I-600, I-600A, I-601, I-601A, I-612, I-690, I-694, I-698, I-751, I-765, I-800, I-800A, I-817, I-824, I-910, I-924, I-924A, I-929, I-942, I-942P, N-300, N-336, N-400, N-470, N-600, and N-600K.

This change will affect green card renewals, business immigration cases, family immigration cases, work authorization applications, citizenship applications, and other types of cases. USCIS did not disclose the reason for the unanticipated change. Persons with concerns about impact on immigration status should contact an immigration attorney.

Filing fee increases for a number of the forms became effective December 23, 2016, as well, but USCIS had given prior notice of the fee increase.

UPDATE:  On December 29, 2016, USCIS announced a grace period for accepting older versions of the forms until Tuesday, February 21, 2017.  However, Monday, February 20, 2017, the day before the new forms are required, is a federal holiday – President’s Day. We recommend treating Thursday, February 16, 2017, as the last effective day for the grace period.  Older versions of the forms sent February 17 or thereafter without the date 12/23/16 at the bottom likely will be rejected (the exception is the Form I-129).

On February 25, 2015, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published a Final Rule confirming that certain H-4 spouses will be eligible to apply for U.S. work authorization.  Following is an outline of this new Final Rule and how new H-4 work regulations will be implemented in the near future.

***

ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS IN H-4 STATUS NOW AUTHORIZED TO WORK IN THE UNITED STATES?

No.  Only certain individuals in H-4 status are eligible to apply for U.S. work authorization, based on their spousal relationship to an H-1B worker who has reached certain thresholds in his or her permanent, employment-based sponsorship by a U.S. employer.  The criteria for H-4 work authorization eligibility are narrow and specific.  Considerably less than 50% of H-4 spouses will be eligible to apply for work authorization.

Also, eligibility is limited to H-4 spouses only.  Dependent H-4 children are not eligible to apply for work authorization under the new rule.

WHICH H-4 SPOUSES ARE NOW ELIGIBLE FOR WORK AUTHORIZATION?

According to the final rule and new DHS regulations, all of the following criteria must be met to qualify for H-4 work authorization:

  • The H-4 applicant must be married to an H-1B specialty occupation worker;
  • The H-1B worker must be either:
    • a) the beneficiary of an approved I-140 petition
      OR
    • b) the beneficiary of an approved H-1B extension petition beyond the H-1B six-year limit based on AC21 s. 106(a) or (b) (due to having a PERM application or I-140 petition filed and pending for over 365 days, being the beneficiary of an approved I-140 petition, or having an I-485 application filed and pending);
  • The H-1B worker must currently hold valid H-1B status; and
  • The H-4 spouse must currently hold valid H-4 status.

I MEET THE CRITERIA FOR H-4 WORK AUTHORIZATION.  CAN I APPLY FOR U.S. JOBS IMMEDIATELY?

While you could apply for a job, a U.S. employer would not be able to hire you until you have received an official Employment Authorization Document.  Even H-4 spouses who meet all the eligibility criteria are not automatically authorized to work in the United States.  To officially obtain work authorization, you must file an application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for an Employment Authorization Document (aka “EAD” or “work permit”).  All U.S. employers are required to examine documents which prove your U.S. work authorization shortly after your hire.  If your only work authorization eligibility comes from your H-4 status and you do not have an EAD, no U.S. employer will be able to legally offer you work.

OK, I UNDERSTAND I NEED AN H-4 EMPLOYMENT AUTHORIZATION DOCUMENT (EAD) TO BEGIN WORK.  CAN I APPLY FOR MY EAD IMMEDIATELY?

No.  Changes to U.S. immigration rules and procedures typically require time to be implemented by U.S. government agencies, and this will hold true for the new Final Rule on H-4 spousal work authorization.  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced it will begin accepting H-4 EAD applications on May 26, 2015.  Applications filed prior to this date may be rejected or denied.

WHEN THE APPLICATION WINDOW OPENS, WHAT FORM SHOULD I FILE, AND WHAT DOCUMENTS/EVIDENCE WILL I NEED TO SUBMIT ALONG WITH MY APPLICATION?

USCIS Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, is the application form which will be used for H-4 EAD applications.  Applications must be accompanied by a filing fee of $380.

Although USCIS has not yet modified its filing instructions for Form I-765 to include specific guidance for H-4 EAD applicants, it would be prudent to prepare evidence addressing all eligibility criteria, i.e.:

  • Marriage Certificate: The H-4 applicant must be married to an H-1B specialty occupation worker;
  • The H-1B worker must be either:
    • I-140 Approval Notice: a) the beneficiary of an approved I-140 petition
      OR
    • H-1B Extension (I-129) Approval Notice, along with Receipt Notice/Proof of Filing dated over 365 days ago for ETA Form 9089 or Form I-140; or I-140 Approval Notice; or I-485 Receipt Notice: b) the beneficiary of an approved H-1B extension petition beyond the H-1B six-year limit based on AC21 s. 106(a) or (b) (due to having a PERM application or I-140 petition filed and pending for over 365 days, being the beneficiary of an approved I-140 petition, or having an I-485 application filed and pending);
  • Current I-94 Record evidencing valid H-1B status, along with recent paystubs from H-1B employer: The H-1B worker must currently hold valid H-1B status; and
  • Current I-94 Record evidencing valid H-4 status: The H-4 spouse must currently hold valid H-4 status.

Before the application filing window opens on May 26, USCIS may issue further guidance as to required supporting documentation, including but not limited to these items.  Be sure to check USCIS’s website at: http://www.uscis.gov/i-765 for full instructions prior to filing.

WHAT CAN I EXPECT FROM THE USCIS APPLICATION PROCESS AND HOW SHOULD I PLAN AHEAD FOR FILING?

Average processing times for EADs, as of the time of this blog publication, are 2-3 months.  The H-4 Final Rule corroborates that USCIS should adjudicate the application within 90 days of receipt.

There are a few collateral considerations you should also keep in mind when preparing to file your H-4 EAD application, including:

  • When does my H-4 status and my spouse’s H-1B status expire?
  • Will the period of validity on my H-4 EAD be limited or foreshortened due to my upcoming H-4 status expiration?
  • Am I eligible to apply to extend my H-4 status right now?  (If so, consider filing your EAD application concurrently with your I-539 extension of status application.)
  • Is my spouse eligible to apply to extend his or her H-1B status right now?  (If so, consider filing your EAD application and your I-539 extension of status application concurrently with your spouse’s I-129 petition.  If the I-129 petition is filed under USCIS’s Premium Processing program, this might be a strategy which would yield faster processing of your applications.)

Note: as of the date of publishing this blog, USCIS has not yet released details regarding the prospective validity period of H-4 EADs, or the prospective processing of concurrently filed applications.

I DON’T PLAN ON WORKING IN THE UNITED STATES.  IS THERE ANY REASON TO APPLY FOR AN H-4 EAD ANYWAY?

Even if you do not plan to work in the United States, receiving U.S. work authorization allows you to apply for and be issued a U.S. Social Security Number.  Some individuals find having a U.S. Social Security Number desirable or useful.

IS THERE ANY REASON I MIGHT NOT APPLY FOR AN H-4 EAD IF I AM ELIGIBLE TO DO SO?

Any applicant who has more than one option for employment authorization should assess which one is the most favorable.  Practically speaking, H-4 EADs will be most useful for individuals which are subject to backlogs in employment-based immigrant visa categories.  These include spouses of H-1B workers from all countries whose employment-based sponsorship is in the EB-3 (third-preference) category, or spouses of H-1B workers from China or India whose employment-based sponsorship is in the EB-2 or EB-3 category.

Other prospective H-4 EAD applicants (i.e. spouses of EB-1 beneficiaries, or non-China/India spouses of EB-2 beneficiaries) may be eligible to immediately apply to USCIS for adjustment of status, and may be eligible for EADs on this basis, without needing to maintain H-4 status.

***
The full text of DHS’s Final Rule, including public comments and specific amendments to 8 CFR 214.2(h) and 274a, can be found in the Federal Register at: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/02/25/2015-04042/employment-authorization-for-certain-h-4-dependent-spouses.  An official press release from DHS/USCIS regarding the EAD application process can be found at: http://www.uscis.gov/news/dhs-extends-eligibility-employment-authorization-certain-h-4-dependent-spouses-h-1b-nonimmigrants-seeking-employment-based-lawful-permanent-residence.

 

In a bold move, on November 20, 2014, President Obama announced his Immigration Accountability Executive Actions to address flaws in the current immigration system.  The plan contains three parts:

  1. Enhanced border enforcement and employer crackdowns for ongoing immigration violations;
  2. Administrative relief from deportation to allow certain undocumented immigrants to apply to remain in the United States; and
  3. Business-friendly policies to enhance U.S. competitiveness and attract foreign investment and talent.

While the focus has been on the administrative relief, the rest of the plan offers potential improvements for some employment-focused immigration categories:

  •  L-1B specialized knowledge workers:
    • Clarifying the rules to bring greater coherence and integrity, to “enhance companies’ confidence in the program”
  • H-4 spouses of H-1B workers:
    • Providing work authorization to spouses once the H-1B worker’s green card process is well underway
  • Foreign nationals caught in a backlog while seeking permanent resident status:
    • For foreign workers in line for a green card, removing unnecessary restrictions on natural career progression without being tied to one job
    • For their spouse and children, providing work authorization at an earlier stage through a registration process
    • Allowing spouses and children of lawful permanent residents to apply for waivers of unlawful presence without leaving the U.S.
  • For F-1 foreign students eligible to work after graduation from a U.S. college or university:
    • Expanding the degree programs eligible for extended periods of work beyond 12 months
  • For foreign inventors, researchers, and founders of start-up enterprises:
    • Making the “national interest waiver” category available for permanent resident status
    • Offering temporary parole in the U.S. under the “significant public benefit” standard
  • Employers using the PERM process prior to sponsoring foreign workers for green cards:
    • Modernizing the process, including the possibility of expedited, premium processing
    • Identifying demonstrated shortages and surplusages

Building on the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, through which young adults brought to the U.S. as children and lack status, the administrative relief plan has the following provisions.

  • Deferred Action for Parents (DAP).
    • Requirements for the parent
      • Have a U.S. citizen child (of any age); or
      • Have a lawful permanent resident child (of any age);
      • Arrived in the U.S. by January 1, 2010;
      • Have been continuously present in the U.S. since January 1, 2010;
      • Pass background checks;
      • Pay taxes (though evidence of payment of back taxes is not required).
    • Relief
      • Eligible to apply for deferred action, which will be granted for a 3-year period and can be extended.
      • Work authorization comes with the DAP approval.
    • Timing
      • The process should be available by Spring 2015.

 

  • Expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
    • Requirements for the applicant
      • Arrived in the U.S. before turning 16 years old;
      • Arrived in the U.S. by January 1, 2010;
      • Have been continuously present in the U.S. since January 1, 2010;
      • Pass background checks.
    • Relief
      • Eligible to apply for deferred action, which will be granted for a 3-year period, and can be extended.
      • Work authorization comes with the DAP approval.
    • Timing
      • The plan is to have applications available by January 2015.

The administrative relief plan, a step in the right direction toward fixing our country’s broken immigration system, has the following limitations:

  • Neither DACA or DAP gives any immigration status.
  • Only temporary reprieve from deportation is available.
  • The programs do not grant green cards or citizenship.
  • They do not provide for any path to green cards or citizenship.
  • They are not available immediately.
  • Many undocumented persons will not be eligible.
  • The plan relies on the President’s prosecutorial discretion authority, recognizing that immigration enforcement is necessarily selective and that Congress funds capacity for about 400,000 deportations each year.

Nevertheless, the plan could expand the legal workforce by about four million.

Employers and businesses should be alert for opportunities to take advantage of the components of the plan.

On May 6, 2014, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officially announced that the United States will offer employment authorization to H-4 spouses of H-1B specialty occupation workers, under certain conditions.

Historically, H-4 spouses of H-1B workers have not had the right to work in the United States, although they have been able to legally reside in the United States and enroll in U.S. schools during the period of H-1B approval.  Many spouses in H-4 status become eligible to apply for U.S. employment authorization when the H-1B principal is sponsored for Lawful Permanent Resident status by a U.S. employer.  However, due to quotas restricting the number of employment-based green cards issued each year, many H-4 spouses (especially from India and China) must wait for many years after such sponsorship before they can apply for employment authorization.  The new H-4 provisions appear targeted to benefit these individuals.

Eligibility for H-4 employment authorization is tied to the principal H-1B worker.  H-4 spouses will be eligible to apply for employment authorization if their H-1B worker husband or wife:

  • Is the beneficiary of an approved I-140 filed by a U.S. employer; or
  • Has been granted an extension of H-1B status beyond the six-year limit based on the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 (Public Law 106-313).

H-4 employment authorization application fees, forms and processes will be clarified through proposed regulations, which DHS has promised to release soon.  As of now, it is not clear when DHS will begin receiving and processing such applications.

This new opportunity for H-4 spouses represents DHS’s recognition of the potential value that spouses of skilled foreign workers bring to the U.S. economy.  Many spouses in H-4 status are themselves professionals or would-be entrepreneurs, but are unduly prevented from entering the U.S. workforce due to visa quota backlogs.  DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has called the new H-4 employment rules an effort to “retain and attract world-class talent … [to] ensure [the United States] do[es] not cede the upper hand to other countries competing for the same talent.”

Click here to read a copy of DHS’s press release regarding H-4 employment authorization.