USCIS Ombudsman Annual Report Notes Continuing RFE Issues
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Ombudsman’s Office has published the 2015 Annual Report. Highlights include:
RFE issues. The Ombudsman’s Office reviews issues involving temporary nonimmigrant petitions (H-2A, H-2B, H-1B, L-1, and O-1), investor immigrant petitions (EB-5), other immigrant petitions, and employment authorization applications. The Annual Report states that the Ombudsman continues to be concerned with the quality and consistency of adjudications and the issuance of unduly burdensome requests for evidence (RFEs). Last year’s report discussed in detail RFEs that were “too often vague, unduly burdensome, or unnecessary,” this year’s report notes. The Ombudsman said that such RFEs “continue to delay adjudications and burden applicants and petitioners, particularly in the provisional waiver program and key employment-based categories.” Providing adequate notice regarding filing deficiencies “is essential to the effectiveness of RFEs, but they are often general and fail to address evidence already in the record,” the Ombudsman said, adding that this is especially important in cases in which applicants and petitioners are not afforded the option of an appeal or a motion to reopen or reconsider.
The report notes one example of an employer agent who submitted a request for case assistance with the Ombudsman. The agent had filed an H-2A petition on behalf of the employer on October 31, 2014, with a November 15, 2014, start date requested. USCIS issued an RFE on November 19, 2014. USCIS did not use the next-day-return courier envelope provided and instead sent the request by regular USPS mail. The agent did not receive the notice until December 1, 2014. Furthermore, the agent was confused by the duplicative nature of the RFE because the documents requested were submitted with the initial petition. The employer immediately submitted a duplicate copy of the documents to USCIS using overnight mail. The Ombudsman contacted USCIS, and assisted in having the agency review and adjudicate the H-2A petition within a day of the communication. The report states that a shift to electronic processing, whether via online submission or email, would result in faster processing.
Stakeholders continue to raise concerns about USCIS adjudication of nonimmigrant petitions for high-skilled beneficiaries, the report notes, including H-1B (specialty occupations), L-1A (intracompany transferee managers or executives), L-1B (specialized knowledge workers), and O-1 (extraordinary ability or achievement). Specifically, employers and their representatives have sent examples to the Ombudsman of RFEs that appear to be redundant, seeking documentation that was previously provided; unnecessary, requesting information that is irrelevant or exceeds what is needed to complete the adjudication; and unduly burdensome in scope or intrusiveness.
Petitioners have also provided the Ombudsman with examples of RFEs and denials in “new” office L-1A extension cases. In reviewing these extension filings, the report notes that “it is appropriate that adjudicators examine whether the petitioner is actually ‘doing business,’ to ascertain the specific job duties that will be performed by the beneficiary under the extended petition,” and to consider the “staffing of the new operation, including the number of employees and types of positions held.” Yet, in some instances, the report notes, “it appears that adjudicators are placing undue emphasis on whether the beneficiary is too closely connected to the actual production work or services offered by the petitioning entity.” The report states that “L-1A managers and executives are in fact permitted to engage in some hands-on activities, provided these activities are secondary to their principal and essential duties.”
In response to the concerns about RFEs, the Ombudsman said that trainings for adjudicators could be made more useful. “A training program on the preponderance of the evidence standard using detailed real-world case examples for each product line would better assist USCIS adjudicators [in determining] whether cases are approvable or deniable upon first review, resulting in the issuance of fewer, and more narrowly tailored RFEs,” the report notes. The Ombudsman also continues to urge the agency to pilot an initiative requiring 100 percent supervisory review before an RFE is issued.
EB-5 program and employment-based processing. The report notes that although USCIS has hired new adjudicators and economists, it had 12,749 investor petitions (Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur) in its pending inventory as of March 31, 2015, with nearly 20 percent pending adjudication for more than a year, and that EB-5 processing times have been getting longer. The report notes that USCIS has provided technical assistance to Congress and is working with other DHS and government agencies to put safeguards in place to ensure program integrity.
Regarding employment-based immigrant petition processing, the report notes that in recent months USCIS has taken steps to review its longstanding policy on who is an “affected party” for purposes of appealing a decision on a Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. The Ombudsman encourages USCIS to consider the significant case law and recognize legal standing for certain beneficiaries of a Form I-140 petition.
Matter of Simeio. The report notes that on April 9, 2015, USCIS’s Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) issued a rare precedent decision addressing when a reassignment of an H-1B worker requires the petitioning employer to file an amended H-1B petition that is supported by a DOL certified Labor Condition Application (Form ETA-9035). As a precedent decision—one of only four issued in the last three years—the holding in Simeio is binding on all USCIS H-1B petitioning employers nationwide, the report notes.
Since the Simeio decision was issued without accompanying guidance, the Ombudsman hosted a national teleconference on April 30, 2015, to seek stakeholder feedback and identify outstanding issues. Over 650 external stakeholders and government officials participated in the call. Of utmost importance to the affected stakeholder community, the report notes, was how the decision would be applied to H-1B employees who were previously reassigned with no amended filing based on prior practice. On May 21, 2015, USCIS addressed some of these questions through its issuance of draft guidance, which established a 90-day time frame for employers to submit amended filings.
The report notes that the Simeio case had been pending before AAO for nearly four years, and that this new agency interpretation was made without first providing the affected stakeholder community an opportunity to provide its input. “Some large employers have informed the Ombudsman that the decision could cost them millions in additional legal fees and filing costs,” the report states.
DACA. USCIS began accepting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal applications in June 2014. Approximately 15 percent of requests for case assistance submitted to the Ombudsman involved DACA renewal processing delays. The report notes that this year, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson directed USCIS to expand the provisional waiver program and to clarify “extreme hardship” factors.
Juveniles. In this reporting period, USCIS developed and implemented the In-Country Refugee/Parole Program for Central American Minors in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Ombudsman continues to be concerned with adjudications issues and processing delays in special immigrant juvenile petitions, fee waiver requests, and asylum applications. Among other things, the Ombudsman received numerous examples of special immigrant juvenile petitions in which USCIS issued RFEs requesting a wide range of records pertaining to the underlying state court dependency order, “essentially second-guessing the state court action.” The report notes that in the near future, the Ombudsman will publish formal recommendations to improve processing of petitions for special immigrant juveniles.
Other issues. The Annual Report also discusses delivery of USCIS notices and documents; recording or withdrawal of legal representation; USCIS’s calculation of processing times; and the agency’s ongoing effort to move from a paper-based to an electronic environment.
The report is available at http://www.dhs.gov/annual-report-congress.