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Some immigration attorneys are seeing what could be a quiet expansion of a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services effort to root out fraud in the immigration system.
That could translate to greater scrutiny of companies that transfer workers with uniquely specialized knowledge to their U.S. offices.
“There are so many different things going on in terms of enhanced investigation now, that it’s hard to sort the reality out,” attorney David Grunblatt of Proskauer in Newark, N.J., recently told Bloomberg BNA. But whereas the USCIS in the past announced new initiatives “with a lot of fanfare,” the agency is “being a lot more secretive about what they’re doing lately,” he said.
The USCIS last announced an expansion of its site visit program in fiscal year 2014. The program involves unannounced visits to the work sites of immigrants on certain types of employment visas to ensure compliance with visa rules.
The 2014 expansion included site visits to employers with workers on R-1 religious worker visas and L-1 intracompany transferee visas. The latter are used by companies when they wish to transfer an executive or manager or someone with specialized knowledge to a U.S.-based office from foreign affiliate.
At the time, the agency was “pretty explicit” that it only would conduct site visits of employers using L-1A visas, which are reserved for managers and executives, immigration attorney Vic Goel of Goel & Anderson in Reston, Va., told Bloomberg BNA.
Now it appears the agency is conducting at least some site visits of employers using L-1B visas, which are for workers with “specialized knowledge,” said Goel, former chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Business Immigration Committee.
A USCIS spokeswoman declined to answer requests for comment on the potential new site visit program, referring Bloomberg BNA to the agency’s Administrative Site and Verification Program webpage. The page indicates that that the USCIS performs L-1 site visits but doesn’t delineate between types of L-1 visas. It also states that site visits will occur only after petitions have been approved.
But Goel has a client who had a site visit before its petition to extend an L-1B worker’s status was decided. “It is just one particular client,” but it’s happened at least twice, and in different states, he said.
Attorney Allen Orr of Orr Immigration in Washington had a pair of clients that faced site visits from the USCIS. But they were “a little bit different” this time around, said Orr, who serves as treasurer of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The site visits were conducted by a USCIS officer, as opposed to the prior practice of using government contractors, he said. And for the first time, the officer conducting the site visit asked for information about all other employees on work visas, he said.
If the USCIS finds one instance of fraud, it “will affect all your other applications,” Orr said. The agency will take a look at “every visa that you have,” he said.
“It’s really hard for me to know” whether the USCIS is launching a new site visit program, but it’s “clear” the agency is looking for fraud across all visa categories, Orr said.
Goel suspects the change may have to do with the Trump administration’s scrutiny of employers that hire foreign workers.
Most of the focus on foreign workers has been with the H-1B program, which allows companies to bringing in temporary foreign workers to fill “specialty occupations,” i.e., positions that require a bachelor’s degree. President Donald Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order requires the federal government to come up with ways to ensure that H-1B visas are handed out to the “most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.”
The “general tendency” is for lawmakers and policy makers to lump H-1Bs and L-1Bs together when talking about potential fraud in visa programs, Goel said.
For instance, Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) for years have introduced never-passed legislation that would overhaul both programs to add better protections for U.S. workers.
A representative for Durbin declined to comment, stating that his office is unaware of any expanded site visits by the USCIS. A representative for Grassley didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.
“There is a greater emphasis on verification with regard to most business immigration programs,” Goel said. “It would not surprise me just to see greater emphasis on site visits” and on the “extreme vetting” of visa applicants, he said.
This may be the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the agency’s anti-fraud measures, Goel said.
None of the attorneys saw anything untoward about the site visits themselves, but said they would like the USCIS to be more forthcoming about it.
“There will be an element of stealth in how these enforcement initiatives develop,” which is “more disconcerting to me than anything else,” Grunblatt said. Many immigration attorneys aren’t averse to increased enforcement efforts, but it should be a “transparent process,” he said.
We understand the need to double-check the information on a visa petition, but “transparency would always be helpful,” Goel said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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