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H-1B Series: Legal Background of the H-1B "Specialty Occupation" Program - Statutes and Regulations Practitioners Should Know
by George N. Lester IV

George N. Lester IV

A. Relevant Acts of Congress and Statutory Provisions

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the "Immigration and Nationality Act" or "INA") first established an H-1 nonimmigrant visa classification for temporary workers "of distinguished merit and ability." The relevant provisions of the INA have since been amended several times, leading to the H-1B program as we know it today, most significantly by the Immigration Act of 1990 ("IMMACT 90"), with further modification by the Miscellaneous and Technical Immigration and Naturalization Amendments Act of 1991, the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 ("ACWIA"), and The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act ("AC 21").

In its current form the H-1B program was defined chiefly by the Immigration Act of 1990. Most significantly, IMMACT 90 replaced the "distinguished merit and ability" standard with today's concept of "specialty occupation" professionals, and it added the requirement that prospective employers of H-1B foreign nationals file a "labor condition application" with the U.S. Department of Labor, making certain attestations intended to protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. It also created for the first time an annual numerical limit on issuance of new H-1B visas or grants of H-1B status of 65,000, and it imposed a maximum length of stay in the U.S. for H-1B nonimmigrants of six years.

ACWIA was enacted in 1998 in response to sharp increases in usage of the H-1B program and evidence of a growing shortage in the U.S. of skilled workers. It authorized a temporary increase in the annual numerical limitation on H-1B nonimmigrants to 115,000 for federal fiscal years 1999 and 2000 and to 107,500 for 2001. The limit was to revert to 65,000 for fiscal year 2002. The federal fiscal year runs from October 1 of the prior calendar year through September 30. Between 1998 and 2000, however, demand for the H-1B program continued to skyrocket on the strength of the U.S. economy. In response to calls for further increase in the authorized total of H-1B workers, Congress enacted AC 21 in October 2000. AC 21 raised the annual cap to 195,000 for fiscal years 2001, 2002, and 2003, and exempted certain categories of H-1B petitions from being counted against the cap. The increase is only temporary, with reversion to a 65,000 limit to occur in fiscal year 2004.

Legislative debate over both ACWIA and AC 21 was contentious, with critics arguing that the H-1B program hurts U.S. workers in specialty occupation areas by allowing foreign professionals willing to work for lower pay to compete for their jobs and that the labor condition application protections are ineffective to prevent this. As a trade-off, the two bills included new provisions designed to increase protections for U.S. workers and create opportunities for training and education to improve the U.S. workforce. One concept, introduced by ACWIA and extended by AC 21, defines a class of so-called "H-1B dependent employers" and placed additional labor condition application obligations and other restrictions on their use of the H-1B program. In addition, a special "education and training" fee was added to the filing fee for H-1B petitions, of $500 under ACWIA, then raised to $1,000 under AC 21, with the money to be used for scholarships in math and science and grants for education and training in technical areas. The total filing fee for H-1B petitions in most cases is now $1,130. Certain types of petitioners are exempt from the fee, however, and only need to pay the $130 base processing fee. Still other provisions significantly increased penalties for employers found to have made a "willful failure or misrepresentation" with respect to labor condition application obligations.

The fee increase and "H-1B dependent" rules are intended to be temporary, for a period commensurate with the increases in annual limit above 65,000. Barring further Congressional action, these provisions will "sunset" on October 1, 2003, when the limit reverts to 65,000.

AC 21 made two other important changes that are very helpful to H-1B employers. First, it introduced the concept of "H-1B portability," to allow employers petitioning for foreign nationals already in the U.S. in H-1B status with another employer to have the beneficiary begin work immediately upon the filing of the petition with INS. Formerly, the beneficiary was not allowed to begin work for the new petitioning employer until the petition was approved, which could take several months. Second, AC 21 created an exemption from the normal six-year limit on total stay in H-1B status for H-1B nonimmigrants who are the beneficiaries of a permanent residence process which has reached certain stages in the approval process.

Following are general citations to the current statutory provisions governing the H-1B program, which all practitioners should know:

  1. INA 101(a)(15)(H)(i)(b), 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(15)(H)(i)(b) (establishing basic definition of H-1B nonimmigrant category).
  2. INA 214, 8 U.S.C. 1184 (overall section relates to Admission of Nonimmigrants; various specific subsections relate to petition process for and admission of H-1B nonimmigrants).
  3. INA 212(n), (p); 8 U.S.C. 1182(n), (p) (relating to the Labor Condition Application and prevailing wage computations).
B. Regulations

Under the statutory scheme, two separate U.S. administrative agencies have responsibility for the H-1B program, the INS and the Department of Labor ("DOL"). The INS authorizes actual H-1B classification for a particular foreign national beneficiary, based on a petition submitted by the employer describing the job to be performed and the person's qualifications. The DOL reviews and certifies the employer's labor condition application, a prerequisite to the INS petition, and retains jurisdiction to enforce the employer's obligations regarding wages and working conditions. Each of these agencies has promulgated detailed regulations related to its respective function, providing further legal criteria and procedural instructions.

The most significant recent regulatory development came in December 2000, with DOL publication of a long-anticipated Interim Final Rule to implement the "H-1B dependent employer" and other provisions of ACWIA that required final DOL regulations to become effective. The rule-making also republished and finalized certain prior DOL regulatory proposals relating to the H-1B program which had never been finalized, including several provisions which had been invalidated by a 1996 federal Court decision in a lawsuit filed by the National Association of Manufacturers, and added other entirely new concepts.

There were several major changes that employers must heed in these regulations, which became effective January 19, 2001. Some of the changes have general applicability to all H-1B petitioners, whereas others are applicable to "H-1B dependent" and "willful violator" employers. The most significant of the generally applicable provisions define when the employer must file a new LCA to cover an employee who is traveling to a new location. The rules define when the location is a considered a new "place of employment" for purposes of the LCA requirement, and if so, when the employer must submit a new LCA. The rules also changed the LCA form and filing procedures so that employers cannot list more than two locations on the LCA. Formerly, employers could list any number of locations, utilizing an addendum to the form.

A related change requires posting of the LCA notice, or the alternative form of electronic notice, to affected employees, to be provided at any new "place of employment" where the H- 1B nonimmigrant is assigned, including third-party client work sites. These two changes make the LCA process much more burdensome and complex for employers of "roving" H-1B workers such as IT consultants, who frequently move from one client location to another.

The other major changes affect the "H-1B dependent" and "willful violator" employers. As described above, the "H-1B dependent employer" concept impacts employers who have certain proportions of H-1B nonimmigrants in their workforces. Under the ACWIA scheme, "H-1B dependent" employers are (1) companies with twenty-five or fewer full-time equivalent employees who employ seven or more H-1B workers, (2) companies with twenty-six to fifty full-time equivalent employees who employ twelve or more H-1B workers, and (3) companies with fifty-one or more full-time equivalent employees who employ H-1B workers as 15% or more of their workforce. These employers are then required to make additional attestations on an LCA related to "non-displacement" of U.S. workers in "essentially equivalent" jobs in the specific area of employment and related to recruitment of U.S. workers for the job(s). An "aggrieved" U.S. worker who has submitted a resume or otherwise applied for the job that was offered to the H-1B nonimmigrant may file a Complaint with DOL, in response to which the DOL will conduct an investigation.

These provisions represent a major change in the H-1B program because, for the first time, an employer can be required to affirmatively show that it has attempted to recruit U.S. workers prior to filing an H-1B petition-a requirement analogous to the labor certification process for sponsoring foreign nationals for permanent residence. This goes beyond the original focus of the LCA, dating to IMMACT 90, that required the employer simply to offer equal pay and working conditions between U.S. and H-1B workers, but which did not regulate actual recruitment or hiring. Further, the employer runs the risk of being prevented from using the H-1B program at all or facing intense DOL scrutiny if it must subsequently lay off workers.

Two other recent regulatory changes have had significant impact on H-1B petition practice of a more helpful nature. In June 2001, INS published a regulation implementing a "premium processing" program whereby a petitioner may pay an extra $1,000 "premium process" fee and receive a guaranteed response to an H-1B petition filing within 15 days, beginning July 30, 2001. Such a concept had been authorized in budget legislation passed by Congress in December 2000. In December 2001, DOL published a rule amending the Labor Condition Application regulations to provide for electronic filing and processing of LCAs utilizing a web based system of forms and instructions. Under this system, DOL has for the first time consistently been able to meet an obligation to process LCAs within seven days.

Following are general citations to the current INS and DOL Code of Federal Regulations provisions governing the H-1B program:

  1. 8 C.F.R. 214.1 (INS regulations with basic provisions governing requirements for admission, extension and maintenance of various nonimmigrant statuses, including H-1B and H-4)
  2. 8 C.F.R. 214.2(h) (INS regulations with detailed provisions governing H-1B program, as well as other H categories)
  3. 20 C.F.R. 655.700 et seq. (DOL regulations governing Labor Condition Application process for H-1B program)
  4. 20 C.F.R. 655.800 et seq. (DOL regulations governing enforcement of Labor Condition Application attestations)

About The Author

George N. Lester IV is of the Immigration Practice Group (the "Group") of the law firm of Foley, Hoag & Eliot LLP. Foley, Hoag & Eliot LLP is a full-service law firm of 200 lawyers in Boston and Washington, D.C. It was the first large law firm in Boston to develop an expertise in business immigration law, and for over thirty years its Group has represented employers in a full range of procedures to obtain temporary or permanent authorization to employ foreign professionals. Mr. Lester has practiced immigration law for ten years, and regularly speaks to business, academic, and professional groups on immigration topics. As part of his regular AILA activities, Mr. Lester meets with officials of the INS Vermont Service Center to discuss H-1B and other liaison topics. He also serves as Treasurer and a Board Member of the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project (PAIR) in Boston, and received that organization's Pro Bono Attorney Award for Dedication and Commitment to Human Rights in May 1996. Mr. Lester is a 1989 graduate of Northeastern University School of Law.

This article is the third in a series by George N. Lester based on a chapter he authored titled "Specialty Occupation Professionals," in the treatise Business Immigration Law: Strategies for Employing Foreign Nationals, edited by Rodney A. Malpert and Amanda Petersen, and appears here with the permission of the publisher. Published by Law Journal Press. Copyrighted by NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. Copies of the complete work may be ordered from Law Journal Press, Book Fulfillment Department, 105 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016 or at or by calling 800-537-2128, ext. 9300.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.