For years, America has sought the best and the brightest from business, academia, science, and the arts. And, U.S. companies have sought to attract key, highly skilled professionals needed to manage, expand, and re-invigorate their operations here. But visa backlogs, limited visa availability, restrictive agency interpretations, and rigid adjudications all have had a chilling effect on those companies who seek to expand and create jobs in the U.S. through the petitioning of foreign personnel. Entrepreneurs, self-styled capitalists, and other self-employed self-starters, large and small, have experienced particular difficulty and uncertainty when applying for nonimmigrant or immigrant visa eligibility, never knowing whether their cases would be approved. In many instances, the evidentiary burden as applied to them has been disproportionately onerous; in other instances, the documentary evidence required has been misconstrued and disconnected from real business practices.
It is against this backdrop and a tanking economy that USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano recently outlined – with much fanfare – “a series of new policy, operational, and outreach efforts” designed to help invigorate the economy and stimulate investment by making it easier for highly-skilled immigrants to start and grow companies and create jobs in the United States. Citing the need to attract foreign entrepreneurial talent of all kinds, immigration officials announced plans that could positively affect immigration visa eligibility in several categories if their plans are more than mere fantasy and hype.
National Interest Waivers (NIWs) for Entrepreneurs
First, the government announced that it “will clarify,” presumably with field adjudicators, that immigrant entrepreneurs may obtain employment-based second preference (EB-2) immigrant visas if they satisfy the existing requirements. The law has always provided for such eligibility and perhaps USCIS is instructing adjudicators to merely apply the law. More notably, USCIS makes clear that entrepreneurs can qualify for an EB-2 National Interest Waiver (NIW), and sheds light on how such individuals can demonstrate that their business endeavors will be in the interest of the United States. Significantly, an individual seeking an EB-2 national interest waiver can self-petition; he does not need an employer to hire him.
Historically, the first step in proving EB-2 NIW eligibility, even for entrepreneurs, has been relatively easy. It requires that an individual is a professional holding an advanced degree or possesses “a degree of expertise significantly above that ordinarily encountered,” or exceptional ability. The second step, proving that the entrepreneur’s investment in a business venture will substantially serve the national interest, has been more challenging. To do so – to qualify for a national interest waiver – the entrepreneur must demonstrate that (1) the proposed employment or work has substantial intrinsic merit; (2) that the benefit to be provided will be national in scope; and (3) that the national benefit is so great that it exempts the individual from undergoing the lengthy and costly process of testing the labor market for U.S. workers through the labor certification process.
In its August announcement, USCIS provides some examples on how an entrepreneur can meet the NIW, or second-step requirements. To establish the national scope of the proposed benefit of the work, for instance, an entrepreneur could, describes USCIS, show a linkage between job creation in a locality and the spinoff of related jobs in other parts of the country. Alternatively, he could show that local job creation will have a positive national impact. USCIS also opines that an individual entrepreneur might be eligible for exemption from the labor certification process if he establishes that the enterprise is creating new job opportunities for U.S. workers or that it otherwise enhances the welfare of the United States. Through these examples and its broader pronouncement, USCIS seems to be signaling a break from current constructions of what is required and setting out new expectations for these kinds of cases.
Immigrant Investor (EB-5) Program
USCIS plans to enhance and streamline the Immigrant Investor (EB-5) Program. Some components of the streamlined program include a fast-track for applications of enterprises that are fully developed and ready to be implemented, premium processing for certain cases, and the implementation of direct communication between the applicant and USCIS to, among other things, resolve issues without the need for formal requests for additional evidence (RFEs). USCIS is developing a rollout of these changes with the first to be implemented in early September.
Expansion of Premium Processing for Immigrant Multinational Executives and Managers
USCIS also announced that it will expand premium processing service to multinational executives and managers immigrant visa petitions (EB-1-3). Premium processing, which guarantees adjudication in 15 days, is currently available for many other employment-based immigrant visa petitioners, including extraordinary ability foreign nationals and outstanding professors and researchers. However, EB-2 National Interest Waiver petitions remain conspicuously still absent from the premium processing list, an anomaly that is hard to explain. Surely, the certainty of a decision in 15 calendar days through premium processing would encourage a reluctant entrepreneur-petitioner to go forward and invest. We hope USCIS will rethink this and add EB-2 NIW petitions to the list.
On the nonimmigrant side of the ledger, USCIS unfortunately provides little new guidance. It does, however, state that an H-1B beneficiary who is the sole owner (an employee-entrepreneur) of the petitioning company may establish a valid employer-employee relationship for the purposes of qualifying for an H-1B visa. This has long been a gray area and fraught with tremendous uncertainty in adjudication.
USCIS also announced plans to undertake extensive outreach efforts, including a series of engagement opportunities with stakeholders to seek input and feedback on how to address the unique circumstances of entrepreneurs, new businesses, and startup companies. Certainly, other nonimmigrant work visas that are suitable for those in business – Es, Ls, and Os – will be the subject of such efforts and must be addressed. And, given the fanfare associated with the recent announcement, USCIS must be prepared to lay out its implementation plan in real and concrete terms.
Will New Policy Translate into Nonimmigrant and Immigrant Visa Approvals?
Long advocated for by immigrant practitioners, economists, business, and others, the ideas outlined by Secretary Napolitano and Director Mayorkas are welcome news, even if symbolic. The United States needs capital and talent to jump-start the economy, and foreign investors and entrepreneurs — natural risk takers – have long sought status in the United States to conduct business here. Moreover, these initiatives require no new visa category to be enacted and no expansion of visa numbers. What these initiatives do require, however, is flexibility and a common sense application of the law by USCIS and State Department adjudicators. Such decision-makers must be instructed and trained to adapt the specific particularities of everyday business practice to immigration visa criteria, and abandon their more widespread rigid, checklist approach to adjudication.
So, will foreign companies that operate and expand operations in the U.S. see fewer hurdles when seeking to transfer their executive and managerial employees? Will self-starters with big ideas, some capital, and job creation prospects secure green cards? Will EB-5 immigrant investors have greater assurance that the conditions on their residence will be removed? Will foreign E-1 traders and E-2 investors – while not specifically addressed – have more confidence in their renewal applications? Most importantly, will these initiatives trickle down to the field? Or, is the Emperor wearing no clothes. Stay tuned….