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South Dakota Dairy Farmers Join Ag Call for Immigration Reform

April 23rd, 2015 by Romona Paden

farm visaThe 34 employees of Turner Country Dairy, a 1,600-cow dairy farm in South Dakota, milk the cows three times a day, six days a week. It’s heavy, repetitive, arduous work of the kind on which many job seekers pass. Not surprisingly, a majority of Turner Country Dairy workers are immigrants.

Farmer reliance on immigrant labor is a familiar story. The backbone of agricultural labor in Arizona and California is made up of undocumented workers. Likewise, immigrants power the labor on farms in the state of New York. With each, farmers working with immigrants say an overwhelming need to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies and visa systems exists.

However, so far efforts to this end coming out of Washington D.C. are misguided. While employers like Turner County Dairy complies with employment law by collecting required information— an employee’s driver’s license, a Social Security card and an I-9 tax form—verification of these documents isn’t currently required.

Last month, a Congressional committee began moving forward an employer eVerify requirement. Essentially, this means the onus of checking an employee’s work authorization status falls on employers.

EVerify is a government resource to check employee information against Social Security and Homeland Security records.

Undocumented agricultural workers who aren’t authorized to work in the U.S. are estimated to range from 50 percent to 70 percent. Organizations such as the American Farm Bureau, the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Western Growers Association have all rallied around the idea of providing U.S. agriculture with access to a legal, stable workforce.

Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau is quoted as saying the matter is at a breaking point. “We’re at the point where we’re either importing our labor or we’re importing our food.”

Even when immigrants are working legally in the United States, the current system is still cumbersome. Steve Bossman, Turner Country Dairy manger, says visa expirations every five years means workers must make the expensive and time-consuming trip back to their home country. The ritual, which can take up to five months, is required every five years for paperwork renewal.

Besides dairy, other agricultural operations where immigrant labor is common are livestock feedlots, sheep operations and cow-calf producers. Hand-harvested items like apples, blueberries and asparagus are also highly reliant on immigrant labor.

Reform Injunction Likely Headed to Supreme Court

April 22nd, 2015 by Romona Paden

Congressional InactionAs federal judges in the Fifth Circuit of Appeals in New Orleans might likely maintain the injunction on the implementation of President Obama’s expanded reform efforts, Texas v. United States could be headed toward the Supreme Court. With the injunction still in place, expanded outreach through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) programs can’t move forward—leaving some immigrant families living in fear of separation through deportation.

While the current impasse in the court of appeals is discouraging to immigration reform advocates, it’s worth noting that attorneys with the Department of Justice (DOJ) have solid arguments in their corner as they argue the case for lifting the injunction. Additionally, highly vocal public sentiment has manifested in the form of activist support.

After the president announced expanded reform orders in November last year, DACA and DAPA proposals were slated to go into effect in February. When the state of Texas filed a lawsuit against the measure, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen blocked the reform order. As it stands now, officials with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) had to shut down plans to accept applications from those who fit the reform criteria.

One immigrant activist who makes a particularly compelling case in favor of lifting the injunction is New Orleans City Council Representative LaToya Cantrell. In her editorial, which ran over the weekend in The Times-Picayune newspaper, Cantrell makes the case that support for the president’s reforms are in alignment with New Orleans priorities for a safe community with a vibrant economy.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the president’s order will benefit many,” Cantrell writes in the editorial. Immigrants’ participation in the nation’s productivity means the rule is designed to reach out to those who help to make the city and the country work. “These are people who have contributed to our nation.”

What’s more, Cantrell writes, immigrants played an important role in the city’s recovery after Hurricane Katrina. The council representative writes that residents of her district “remember the thousands of immigrants who came here when we desperately needed help, spending countless hours rebuilding our homes.” She continues, “Almost as soon as the floodwaters receded, and sometimes sooner, these workers were here: putting blue tarps on our damaged rooftops, gutting homes and repairing our broken city in many other ways.”

New H-1B Visa Policy Wins Praise

April 15th, 2015 by Romona Paden

Immigration InnovationWith damaging consequences to the U.S. economy, changes in outdated visa rules will bring a much-needed boost to the nation’s immigration scene. Focusing on the H-1B nonimmigrant visa, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker says the change is good news not only for the nation’s economy, but for immigrants themselves.

Beginning later this spring—May 26— the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will begin granting employment authorization eligibility to certain H-4 dependent spouses. The policy shift is part of the executive action plan on immigration that President Obama announced in November last year.

In a March 2015  Inc. Magazine article carrying her byline, Secretary Pritzker cites the lack of work ability for those classified as H-4 dependent spouses as a polity fraught with the wreckage of unintended consequences. For instance, with one spouse denied employment authorization, the couple’s economic viability diminishes. The situation inevitably leads to an overwhelming sense of frustration for each spouse. In the worst case scenario, the commerce secretary writes, H-1B visa holders simply end up abandoning their years-long investment toward establishing permanent residency and in building a life in the United States.

The implications of the situation are far-reaching and go beyond the individual lives of immigrants, according to the article. Not only do U.S. companies lose the unique skills of immigrants with H-1B status, but the innovative processes and productivity of spouses with H-4 dependent spouse status is also lost.

“We can no longer allow our failed immigration policies to be a roadblock for immigrants to make a fresh start in America,” Pritzker says in the article. “The fact is, the United States was built by the kinds of immigrants who will benefit from this new policy change.”

Pritzker backs up her point with numbers as well. More than one-quarter of new businesses are started by immigrant entrepreneurs. Of Fortune 500 companies, some 40 percent were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Among the well-known corporate names are tech giants Yahoo and Google as well as hardware haven Home Depot.

“The new visa rule will allow tens of thousands of spouses of H-1B workers to forge their own paths and careers, just like those that came before them,” Pritzker says in the article.

USCIS Accepting Grant Program Applications

April 13th, 2015 by Romona Paden

United States Citizenship and Immigration has earmarked $10 million to help immigrants move toward citizenship. With this, immigrant-support organizations have an opportunity to firm up resources as the Citizenship and Integration Grant Program application process is underway. Organizations receiving the grants can be awarded as much as $250,000 over a two-year period.  bigstock-Hispanic-medical-worker-isola-15690200

The Citizenship and Integration Grant Program, administered by USCIS, is designed to assist those organizations that “prepare permanent residents for naturalization and promote civic integration through increased knowledge of English, U.S. history and civics,” according to the agency. The competitive funding opportunity is available to public and nonprofit organizations offering both citizenship instruction and naturalization application services.

Eligible public and nonprofit organizations which could qualify for the grants are those like public school systems, universities and community colleges. Likewise, civic, community and faith-based organizations as well as adult-education organizations, public libraries and volunteer and literacy organizations are likely candidates offering immigrant services. State and local governments are still other entities where federal monies can filter to immigrant needs.

Among the services organizations might provide to immigrants is interview preparation, which could include things like appearance at the naturalization interview. Assistance in filing forms or documents like Form N-648, Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions could be another element of service provided by an organization.

USCIS accepts grant applications through May 15, 2015 with award announcements in September. The grant covers a two-year time period. Because of this, grant recipients under the fiscal year (FY) 2014 Citizenship and Integration Grant Program funding opportunity—DHSp-14-CIS-010-002—are ineligible for FY 2015 awards. USCIS opened the FY 2015 application process for the grant on April 1.

USCIS can award organizations up to $250,000 in its grant award. These funds are divided equally over the two-year period.

USCIS has administered the citizenship and integration grants since fiscal year 2009. During its time in existence, USCIS has awarded $43 million in Citizenship and Integration Grant Program awards through distribution to 222 immigrant-serving organizations. Ultimately, the grants have reached more than 100,000 permanent residents in 35 states and the District of Columbia.

USCIS Recognizes U.S. Soldiers and Their Families

April 10th, 2015 by Romona Paden

citizenship for immigrant militaryPersonal sacrifice is often thought of as routine for soldiers serving in the military. In reality, though, the sacrifice made by members of the military is one that reaches across to include soldiers’ families. In light of this, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) implements policies designed to recognize these important sacrifices made by members of the nation’s armed forces and their families.

Foreign-born soldiers who serve in one of the branches of the United States military—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard— receive expedited processing of naturalization applications by the USCIS. This favored status likewise extends to the families—spouse and children—of U.S. citizen soldiers in terms of expedited and overseas processing.

Adding Section 319(e) to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), implemented by Congress in fiscal year 2008, the provision allows for some service member spouses to naturalize abroad, without requiring travel to the United States for any part of the naturalization process. The provision also “treats qualifying residence abroad as residence and physical presence in the U.S. for purposes of naturalization.”

Additionally, NDAA for FY 2008 amends Section 322 of the INA. With the amendment, INA rules also allow eligible children of U.S. armed service members to avoid travel to the United States as they progress through the naturalization process. Section 322 also lets children of fallen U.S. soldiers apply for citizenship under INA Section 320 guidelines when application is made within five years of the parent soldier’s death.

At the top of the USCIS list in terms of serving foreign-born U.S. soldiers and their families is the agency’s commitment to timeliness, efficiency and stellar customer service. The agency’s commitment to these characteristics comes within the framework of maintaining the integrity and security of the immigration system.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) is the gateway through which foreign-born members of the military are awarded citizenship. For these soldiers, Section 328 and 329 of the INA provide a specific outline of naturalization requirements—duration of service, discharge status, etc.– for “peacetime naturalization” as well as for naturalization during times of hostilities.

The United States has existed under the hostilities classification since Sept. 11, 2001.

H-2B Visa Motions Winding Through Courts

April 6th, 2015 by Romona Paden

STEM GradThe processing of some H-2B visa got back underway in the middle of last month, thanks to an unopposed motion for an injunction clearing filed in federal court. In effect, the ramifications of Northern District of Florida’s permission granted the Department of Labor (DOL) the ability to restart issuance of temporary labor certifications through April 15.

Under scrutiny in the case, Perez v. Perez, is the DOL’s H-2B regulatory authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Earlier in March, the court vacated DOL’s 2008 H-2B regulations on the grounds that the agency lacks authority to issue regulations in the visa program.

With the ruling, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has resumed adjudications of H-2B petitions. These petitions are based on temporary labor certifications issued by DOL.

Still, both DOL and DHS acknowledge the regulatory gap. In terms of addressing this, a release on the United States Citizenship and Immigration (USCIS) site reports the agencies intend to issue a joint interim final rule by the end of April.

The H-2B visa classification is designed for those nonimmigrant workers in certain labor conditions. Included among these are:

  • Sectors where the availability of U.S. workers fall short of industry needs
  • Sectors where employment of H-2B workers won’t adversely affect U.S. workers
  • Positions where an employer’s need for labor is only temporary

The H-2B visa program operates with a “statutory numerical limit.” The cap on the total number of individuals who can receive H-2B nonimmigrant classification during a fiscal year is currently set at 66,000. Congress has set up the program to split allocation of the program’s visas into the first- and second-half of the fiscal year. Each period allows for allocation of 33,000 of the visas.

Another feature of the H-2B visa program is that petition approval can only be given to nationals of countries eligible to participate in the program. Eligibility is determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security along with the Secretary of State.

DHS publishes the names of the eligible countries annually in a Federal Register notice. Countries named in the Federal Register notice have the H-2B eligible designation for one year.

H-1B Petition Process Begins

April 1st, 2015 by Romona Paden

STEM GradExpecting to fill the congressionally-budgeted quota in just the first five days of this year’s program, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) begins accepting H-1B petitions for fiscal year 2016 on April 1. The H-1B program allows businesses to employ foreign workers in jobs requiring specialized knowledge in fields like science, engineering and computer programming.

Congress sets the rules on the popular H-1B program. For FY 2016, the legislators have mandated a cap of 65,000. A little more breathing room comes into play with a cap exemption for the first 20,000 H-1B visas filed for foreign workers who’ve earned a master’s degree from a U.S.-based institution.

With an expected onslaught of petitions filed with USCIS in the first few business days after opening the application process, the agency expects to go to a lottery system to “randomly select the number of petitions required to meet the cap.” USCIS used the lottery system last year because the cap was exceeded inside the first five business days after opening the application process for FY 2015.

H-1B applicants with opportunities for temporary employment or training in multiple locations file paperwork—Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker—at the Service Center location nearest the company or organization’s primary office. In terms of the form, this means the address applicants list on page 1, part 1 of the form is the organization’s primary office. Applicants list the address of separate work site locations on question 3, on part 5 of the form.

USCIS lets applicants request premium processing of their H-1B petitions. However, the agency has adjusted the practice based on prior years’ data of premium processing receipt levels and a high likelihood that the H-1B cap will be reached in the first five days of the filing season. In this light, USCIS is set to begin premium processing for the petitions with a premium processing request no later than May 11, 2015.

For further guidance on filing for the FY 2016 H-1B petition, USCIS provides applicants with a checklist, Form M-735, Optional Checklist for Form I-129 H-1B Filings.

E-Verify Expands Across 16 More States

March 30th, 2015 by Romona Paden

E-Verify Mandatory

E-Verify

En route to the goal of covering all 50 states, support of the federal E-Verify program—used for work authorization checks—was added in January in 16 states around the country. At the end of last year, only five states and the District of Columbia incorporated E-Verify in the employment process.

As the E-Verify electronic program compares employee-provided Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification Form information to government records with the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS.) By matching the information, employers determine an new hire’s work authorization status.

E-Verify, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Verification Division of USCIS, and the Social Security Administration, is likewise promoted as providing benefits to those who create a personal account on the program’s Self Check feature. With Self Check, account holders can lock a Social Security number to prevent fraudulent use.

While the identity protection element is promoted by program stakeholders as a promotable feature, officials denied the suggested incorporation of “dynamic, multidimensional, knowledge-based authentication technology” as suggested by The Society for Human Resource Management and the Council for Global Immigration.

Officials are using the E-Verify program as a stepping stone toward community outreach. According to reported numbers, more than 500,000 employers use the E-Verify programs and it’s adopted by approximately 1,400 new companies every week.

The 16 states to make E-Verify available to workers are: California, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington.

Besides the District of Columbia, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi and Virginia already used E-Verify.

The rollout to the 16 states is a part of DHS’ effort to see all 50 states adopt the E-Verify program.

H-1B Spouses Gain Work Opportunity

March 25th, 2015 by Romona Paden

homeownershipLife in the United States could soon get a lot better for H-1B nonimmigrants and their families. Beginning later this spring, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) extends approval to certain H-4 dependent spouses to pursue and accept employment opportunities in the country.

The employment authorization eligibility, which becomes effective on May 26, falls under the umbrella of President Obama’s executive action on immigration that he announced in November. The initiative amends DHS regulations and is part of the president’s overall effort to modernize, improve and clarify the visa programs.

H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants who are eligible for employment authorization include:

  • Those who are the principal beneficiaries of an approved Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker; and
  • Those who’ve been granted H-1B status under the amended 21st Century Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act that permits H-1B nonimmigrants to work and remain in the United States beyond the six-year limit of their H-1B status.

Spouses who seek employment authorization must file Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization along with supporting evidence and a $380 fee.

The change in employment authorization rules is expected to reduce economic burdens and personal stresses for nonimmigrants who are H-1B visa holders and their families.  Easing the stress of transitioning from nonimmigrant status to LPR status works to facilitate the integration into American society. DHS likewise expect the extension of employment eligibility to spouses will likewise reduce the number of H-1B nonimmigrants who abandon their efforts to remain in the United States.

USCIS Director León Rodríguez said extending employment eligibility to spouses not only helps H-1B immigrants and their families, but the move is also good for the country’s economy.  “Allowing the spouses of these visa holders to legally work in the United States makes perfect sense,” Rodriguez says in a press release. “It helps U.S. businesses keep their highly skilled workers by increasing the chances these workers will choose to stay in this country during the transition from temporary workers to permanent residents. It also provides more economic stability and better quality of life for the affected families.”

In its first year, the rule change is expected to affect nearly 180,000 people. In subsequent years, estimates say the change will affect 55,000 people annually.

DACA Immigrants Allowed to Claim Federal Tax Benefits

March 23rd, 2015 by Romona Paden

EIT CreditsTax season looks a little brighter this year for immigrants who  have never received a refund check. For those who have been granted deferred deportation status under President Obama’s executive action and who have received a Social Security number, this year’s tax season carries the right to claim credits on federal tax returns.

Access to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—aimed at low- and moderate-income households—is particularly noteworthy. For the 2014 tax year, the credit is worth more than $6,200 for tax payers with three children who didn’t earn more than $53,267. According to reports, almost 28 million tax payers claimed $66 billion for the EIC in the 2013 tax year.

In February, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) commissioner John Koskinen testified in front Congress to explain IRS tax enforcement policies within the framework of the president’s executive action issued in November.

Because it’s classified as a refundable credit, filers can claim EITC even in cases with no tax liability. “Under the new program, if you get a Social Security number and you work, you’ll be eligible to apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit,” the commissioner said.

Additionally, the commissioner testified that because the window to file amended returns is open for three years, immigrants can file retroactively to claim the credit. Immigrants can make the retroactive claim even in cases where no tax return had been filed previously. For these retroactive returns, immigrants are required to demonstrate their off-the-books labor for those years.

Some undocumented immigrants—only about 700,000– who have filed tax returns in previous years used an individual Taxpayer Identification Number.  Others, the commissioner testified, used false Social Security numbers or didn’t file a return at all.

Congressional Republicans disagree with the IRS’ interpretation of the EITC. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, for instance, said the IRS decision to allow retroactive credit “undermines congressional policy of not rewarding those for working illegally in the United States.”

Rep. Mick Mulvaney from South Carolina took issue with the revelation that the president never checked with IRS officials to gain an understanding of the tax implications of his move. “If Congress had passed a law doing exactly what the president did, we would have had not only an estimate of the costs, but we would have also been required to propose ways to pay for the programs,” he said. “This is just another example of the administration operating outside the rule of law.”

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