- In 2023, we saw program-level changes to the content and format of Form ETA-9089 and Form I-9 employment verification procedure for employers. Significant changes to H-1B and F-1 programing as well as for domestic visa processing are proposed and expected in 2024.
- Combined policy and processing changes that several agencies implemented confirm prioritization of STEM fields and labor market competitiveness. These changes include designation of additional STEM fields, an executive order on artificial intelligence, updated extraordinary ability and outstanding researcher guidance specific to STEM occupations, and expansion of premium processing for OPT/STEM applicants and national interest waiver filings.
- USCIS significantly updated processing for certain dependents and EAD holders including a return to bundled dependent adjudication, elimination of biometrics fees, decreased automatic extensions for EAD renewals, increased validity periods, and extension of premium processing.
Program Changes to Streamline and Increase Efficiency
U.S. government agencies have prioritized the modernization of the U.S. immigration framework to enhance efficiency, user experience, and overall program effectiveness.
Permanent Labor Certification Process and New ETA-9089
U.S. employers rely heavily on the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) permanent labor certification process to sponsor foreign workers for U.S. permanent residency. The online platform and application form transitioned significantly this year. Effective June 1, 2023, a new version of the Form ETA-9089 became effective via the Foreign Labor Application Gateway (FLAG) platform. The new Form ETA-9089 and the transition to the FLAG platform aim to streamline the permanent labor certification process and increase efficiency with the goal of improving lengthy DOL processing times.
Form I-9 and Virtual Verification
In the United States, employers are required to verify an employee’s identity and work authorization at the time of hire and complete a Form I-9. A new version of Form I-9 became effective on August 1, 2023. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) introduced a new rule allowing certain qualifying employers to complete the Form I-9 process through an alternative virtual procedure. The changes to the I-9 program aim to increase employer compliance given the abundance of post-pandemic dispersed and remote workforces.
Proposed Rule to Modernize H-1B Program
On October 23, 2023, DHS published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to amend various regulatory sections to update the H-1B program. The proposed changes involve setting policies for providing deference to previously approved cases without change, clarifying the requirements for meeting H-1B standards, allowing certain F-1 students to remain in the United States for a longer period of time by extending cap-gap extensions, ensuring the integrity of the H-1B lottery, and safeguarding against H-1B quota misuse through improved verification procedures. Following the close of the public comment period on December 22, 2023, DHS will likely finalize the various updates through one or more final rules. It is possible the H-1B cap provisions may be finalized in time for the fiscal year (FY) 2025 H-1B cap season.
Stateside Visa Renewal Pilot Program
The Federal Register notice from State Department was published on December 21, 2023 confirming the roll out of a stateside visa renewal pilot program. The State Department will begin with H-1B visa holders and will allow 20,000 participants to renew their visa stamps in the United States, without traveling overseas to apply at a U.S. embassy or consulate. This program will run from January 29, 2024 to April 1, 2024. A list of specific criteria is outlined in our recent article, “Stateside Visa Renewal Pilot Program Set to Begin in January 2024.”
Premium Processing Program
Throughout the year, we have seen substantial expansion of the premium processing program. In January 2023, premium processing became available for I-140 immigrant petition filings for multinational managers or executives and those requesting a national interest waiver. On March 6, 2023, USCIS expanded the premium processing program to include I-765 Applications for Employment Authorization filings for F-1 students requesting pre-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT), post-completion OPT, and STEM OPT extensions. On June 12, 2023, USCIS began phasing in premium processing for change of status filings for F-1, M-1, and J-1 students and their dependents. The expansion of this program demonstrates an overall USCIS commitment to reduce processing times for U.S. immigration filings.
Prioritizing STEM Fields
The U.S. government has emphasized the importance of STEM fields and maintaining U.S. global competitiveness through various initiatives and policy updates.
Designation of New STEM Fields
On July 12, 2023, DHS added eight new fields, including Landscape Architecture, Mechatronics, Robotics, and Geospatial Intelligence, to the STEM Designated Degree Program List. F-1 students completing academic programs in the newly designated fields will be eligible to apply for an additional two years of occupational practical training (OPT) to gain practical work experience in the United States.
Executive Order on AI
President Biden signed Executive Order 14110 on October 30, 2023, focused on maintaining U.S. leadership in artificial intelligence (AI) and emerging technologies. The executive order directs the various U.S. government agencies to set policies to globally attract and retain talented individuals in these fields. It instructs the State Department and DHS to streamline visa processing for individuals coming to the United States to work or study in these areas and also encourages DHS to streamline the green card process. The executive order urges DOL to address shortages of workers in STEM fields and AI.
Evidentiary Guidance for EB-1 Extraordinary Ability and Outstanding Professor and Researcher Immigrant Petitions
On September 12, 2023, USCIS updated its policy guidance on Extraordinary Ability and Outstanding Professor and Researcher classifications. The revisions include new examples of evidence, with a notable emphasis on STEM occupations, reflecting a commitment to facilitating immigration pathways for individuals with expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Processing Changes for Dependent Filings and EAD Applications
The settlement in Edakunni v. Mayorkas brought significant modifications to USCIS adjudication policies for H-4 and L-2 dependents and associated EADs. Effective January 25, 2023, USCIS reverted to bundled adjudication of principal and dependent applications when concurrently and properly filed with the principal H or L applicant. Reviewing these applications together, whether in regular or premium processing, speeds up the approval process for H-4, L-2, and EAD applications, making things more efficient and predictable for families. In alignment with this change, USCIS eliminated the $85 biometric services fee and attendance at a biometrics services appointment for Form I-539 applications, extending relief to various categories where the required biometrics process delayed USCIS adjudication and its final decision on the requested benefit.
Automatic Extension of EADs
On October 27, 2023, USCIS stopped automatically extending certain work permits (EADs) for 540 days and went back to the pre-COVID-19 allotment of 180 days. This affects people renewing their work permits as of October 27, 2023. However, those renewals filed prior to this date, or those that had already received a 540-day extension, will continue to be honored.
Validity Period for EADs and Advance Paroles
On September 27, 2023, USCIS extended the validity period for initial and renewal EADs to five years for certain foreign nationals including those with pending adjustment of status applications under Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) 245. On December 8, 2023, USCIS updated the Retrogression section of its Employment-Based Adjustment of Status FAQs confirming that USCIS will also approve Advance Parole (AP) applications for a five-year period. These changes aim to reduce strain on the immigration system by reducing the frequency of renewal filings and also provide relief and consistency for those impacted by immigrant visa backlogs.
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