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DHS Designates AAO Precedent Decision on National Interest Waivers


Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), recently designated as precedential a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) decision, Matter of Dhanasar. The decision vacates Matter of New York State Dep’t of Transp. [NYSDOT], 22 I&N Dec. 215 (Acting Assoc. Comm’r 1998).

The AAO said that, based on the agency’s experience with NYSDOT, “we believe it is now time for a reassessment.” This precedent decision in Dhanasar means USCIS may grant a national interest waiver if the petitioner demonstrates that: (1) the foreign national’s proposed endeavor has both substantial merit and national importance; (2) he or she is well positioned to advance the proposed endeavor; and (3) on balance, it would be beneficial to the United States to waive the requirement of a job offer and thus of a labor certification.

Among other things, the AAO decision noted that the first Dhanasar prong of the three listed above—substantial merit and national importance—focuses on the specific endeavor that the foreign national proposes to undertake. The endeavor’s merit may be demonstrated in a range of areas, such as business, entrepreneurialism, science, technology, culture, health, or education. The AAO explained that evidence that the endeavor has the potential to create a significant economic impact may be favorable but is not required because an endeavor’s merit may be established without immediate or quantifiable economic impact. For example, endeavors related to research, pure science, and the furtherance of human knowledge may qualify, whether or not the potential accomplishments in those fields are likely to translate into economic benefits for the United States. In determining whether the proposed endeavor has national importance, the AAO said it considers its potential prospective impact.

An undertaking may have national importance, for example, because it has national or even global implications within a particular field, such as those resulting from certain improved manufacturing processes or medical advances. “But we do not evaluate prospective impact solely in geographic terms. Instead, we look for broader implications. Even ventures and undertakings that have as their focus one geographic area of the United States may properly be considered to have national importance,” the AAO noted. “In modifying this prong to assess ‘national importance’ rather than ‘national in scope,’ as used in NYSDOT, we seek to avoid overemphasis on the geographic breadth of the endeavor. An endeavor that has significant potential to employ U.S. workers or has other substantial positive economic effects, particularly in an economically depressed area, for instance, may well be understood to have national importance.”

The second prong, the AAO said, shifts the focus from the proposed endeavor to the foreign national. To determine whether he or she is well positioned to advance the proposed endeavor, the AAO said it considers factors including, but not limited to, “the individual’s education, skills, knowledge and record of success in related or similar efforts; a model or plan for future activities; any progress towards achieving the proposed endeavor; and the interest of potential customers, users, investors, or other relevant entities or individuals.”

The AAO said it recognizes that forecasting feasibility or future success may present challenges to petitioners and USCIS officers, and that many innovations and entrepreneurial endeavors may ultimately fail, in whole or in part, despite an intelligent plan and competent execution. “We do not, therefore, require petitioners to demonstrate that their endeavors are more likely than not to ultimately succeed. But notwithstanding this inherent uncertainty, in order to merit a national interest waiver, petitioners must establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that they are well positioned to advance the proposed endeavor.”

The third prong requires the petitioner to demonstrate that, on balance, it would be beneficial to the United States to waive the requirements of a job offer and thus of a labor certification, the AAO said. “On the one hand, Congress clearly sought to further the national interest by requiring job offers and labor certifications to protect the domestic labor supply. On the other hand, by creating the national interest waiver, Congress recognized that in certain cases the benefits inherent in the labor certification process can be outweighed by other factors that are also deemed to be in the national interest. Congress entrusted the Secretary to balance these interests within the context of individual national interest waiver adjudications,” the AAO noted.

In performing this analysis, the AAO said that USCIS may evaluate factors such as “whether, in light of the nature of the foreign national’s qualifications or proposed endeavor, it would be impractical either for the foreign national to secure a job offer or for the petitioner to obtain a labor certification; whether, even assuming that other qualified U.S. workers are available, the United States would still benefit from the foreign national’s contributions; and whether the national interest in the foreign national’s contributions is sufficiently urgent to warrant forgoing the labor certification process.” The AAO emphasized that, in each case, the factors considered “must, taken together, indicate that on balance, it would be beneficial to the United States to waive the requirements of a job offer and thus of a labor certification.” The AAO noted that this new prong in Dhanasar, unlike the third prong in NYSDOT, “does not require a showing of harm to the national interest or a comparison against U.S. workers in the petitioner’s field. … NYSDOT’s third prong was especially problematic for certain petitioners, such as entrepreneurs and self-employed individuals. This more flexible test, which can be met in a range of ways …, is meant to apply to a greater variety of individuals.”

USCIS noted that the Secretary of DHS may, with the Attorney General’s approval, designate AAO or other DHS decisions to serve as precedents in all future proceedings involving the same issue or issues. Precedent decisions are binding on DHS employees except as modified or overruled by later precedent decisions, statutory changes, or regulatory changes.

The decision is in the Virtual Law Library of the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review at https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/920996/download.

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