As President Trump looks to follow through on his pledge to deter and detect visa fraud and abuse, employers need to prepare for an increase in investigatory site visits, an immigration attorney warned in a recent webinar.
Since 2009, officers from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have been making unannounced site visits to verify that companies are providing accurate information on their visa petitions and that workers are complying with the terms of their admission into the U.S.
Site visits have traditionally focused on H-1B and L-1 employment visas, but don’t be surprised if other visa categories are added under this administration, said Kelli Duehning, a senior counsel with immigration law firm Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP. Meanwhile, USCIS has pledged to conduct a greater number of site visits and take a more targeted approach that focuses on cases where fraud and abuse of visa programs are most likely to occur.
"So if you haven’t already begun seeing it, I believe you are going to see a significant increase in people coming to chat with your companies," said Duehning.
Employers that are lax in preparing for a potential site visit are taking a big risk, as USCIS can impose hefty civil fines and/or criminal penalties if it determines that a company has engaged in a pattern or practice of hiring foreign workers who lack authorization for employment in the U.S.
Duehning said employers can help avoid any potential legal hassles by observing the following pointers during a site visit:
• Make sure investigators are talking to the right people. Designate a person who will interact with investigators, and ensure that everyone at the front desk knows this is the only person who should be speaking with the authorities. This is particularly important at off-site locations so that they know who to contact at the main office.
• Try to keep the workplace out of sight. Avoid walking investigators throughout the workplace to get to a distant meeting room. Instead, designate a room near the front of the workplace to take them to. "The more access you give them to your offices opens the door to allowing them to make opinions about what is going on," Duehning said. "For example, maybe in your visa application you talked about how all of your employees are on site, but when (USCIS officers) walked into your office all they saw were a bunch of empty cubes. Of course they were immediately going to question the truthfulness of what you told them."
• Prepare items to tell your story. Investigators will already have a wealth of information based on what they have seen on the worker’s visa application or any other searches they may have done. "They already have a view—and it is probably negative—of what your company does and how you’re handling your workers," Duehning said. "So be prepared to tell your story by having all your materials ready so that you can help fill in the blanks for any questions that they might have."
The bottom line is that there’s no excuse for being unprepared for a possible site visit from federal authorities given the current political climate. The HR team should play the lead role in gathering all required materials and putting protocols into place to ensure that investigators are restricted to certain areas and speak only to designated staff.
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