USCIS Posts Update of H-2B Visas Petitions Received for the Second Half of FY 2009

Last week, USCIS posted an update of how many H-2B petitions they have received and counted toward the H-2B cap limitation. As of November 21, 2008, a total of 10,265 petitions have been counted toward the 33,000 semi-annual cap for the second half of Fiscal Year 2009.

The H-2B visa gives U.S. employers involved in industries with peak load, seasonal or temporary needs the capacity to utilize temporary nonimmigrant workers to fulfill their staffing needs. H-2B visa workers typically work in areas such as construction, farming, health care, landscaping and hospitality services. In 2005, the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act was passed; this Act divided the visa category’s annual cap of 66,000 available visas into two halves. USCIS enables companies to submit these filings six months in advance of the staffing need.

Currently, 4,663 H-2B petitions have been approved and 5,602 petitions are pending. USCIS’s targeted beneficiary total is 50,000; a number they believe will result in a total of 33,000 approved and accepted H-2B visas for the second half of FY 2009, after taking in consideration withdrawals, denials and application revocations.

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USCIS Posts Reminder to Some Foreign Nationals to Receive Approval to Travel Abroad During the Holidays

USCIS has issued a reminder that some applicants may be required to obtain Advance Parole prior to traveling abroad for the holidays. Advance Parole requests should be submitted on the Application for Travel Document, Form I-131, prior to the applicant leaving the U.S. to travel abroad. Advance Parole provides permission to individuals to re-enter the U.S. after traveling abroad in order to leave the U.S. without abandoning pending applications for adjustment of status.

Those relevant individuals that choose to travel abroad during the upcoming holidays and are required to obtain Advance Parole should already have applied for and, potentially, received their authorization documents. Individuals that have not yet done so, USCIS guides, should not leave the U.S. without such documentation; they may not be able to re-enter the U.S. Finally, it is suggested by USCIS that individuals that have received Advance Parole should read the travel warning in Form I-131’s instructions relating to unlawful presence to ensure their travels will not lead to a three- or ten-year restriction of inadmissibility to the U.S.

USCIS Publishes Changes to the Religious Worker Visa Program

USCIS announced this week that it intends to make significant changes to the R-1 Religious Worker visa classification. In USCIS’ final rule, changes to the Religious Worker program will include the establishment of a requirement that employers submit a formal petition for temporary religious workers. In addition, the final rule includes provisions for increased inspections, evaluations, verifications and compliance reviews of religious organizations. The rule, in addition, will fulfill the Congressional mandate to eliminate and reduce fraud in religious organizations, said USCIS.

“Last year, we proposed revisions to the current regulations designed to safeguard the integrity of the religious worker program,” said Jonathan Scharfen, Acting Director, USCIS. “After careful consideration of the comments received from the public, we are confident that the final rule will not only help eliminate fraud from the program, but also will guarantee the continuation of an important and valuable program for genuine religious organizations.”

Prior to this final rule, foreign religious workers could request an R-1 visas at a consular post without any review of the religions organization or job offer in the U.S. This rule will require individuals seeking to enter the U.S. under this category to give to a consular officer an approved Petition for Alien Worker (Form I-129). Review of these cases in the U.S will, according to USCIS, provide the organization with the capacity to verify that the petitioner and the job offer are legitimate before issuing the visa to the religious worker and allowing that person to enter the U.S.

This final rule also reduces the initial period of admission for a nonimmigrant from three years to just 30 months, which, USCIS states, will allow them to review at an earlier time whether or not the terms of the visa have been met before extending the religious worker’s stay in the U.S.

Department of State Issues Record Number of Student and Exchange Visitor Visas in FY 2008

The Department of State announced this week that in 2008 they issued a record high number of Student and Exchange Visitor visas. For Fiscal Year 2008, the Department of State issued more than 710,000 F, J and M student and exchange visitor visas, an increase of 9.1% as compared to the amount of visas issued in Fiscal Year 2007 and more than a 25% increase as compared to Fiscal Year 2001.

2008 marks the third fiscal year in a row that the Department of State has broken the record for Student and Exchange Visitor visa issuances. There was a nearly 40% increase in visas issued to Chinese National Students than in 2007 and a more than 25% increase in visas issued to students from the Middle East since last year.

According to the Department of State, “One of the foundations of the U.S. academic and scientific communities is vibrant international participation.” The Department remains committed to continuing to provide access to the United States’ highly regarded academic institutions for international students in the years to come.

USCIS Publishes Rule Requiring All Federal Contractors to Use the E-Verify System

USCIS announces that federal contractors and subcontractors will be required to use that agency’s E-Verify system to confirm the employment eligibility of many of their employees and new hires. Starting January 15, 2009, all federal contractors and subcontractors must verify through the E-Verify system all individuals hired during a contract period with the federal government and those current employees who will perform services for the federal government under a contract or subcontract.

All federal contracts that are awarded after January 15, 2009 and solicitations issued after that date will include a clause that clearly states government contractors are required to use E-Verify for employee eligibility verification. This clause will also be required for all subcontracts totaling $3,000 or more for services or construction. Contracts for less than $100,000 and those that are for commercially off-the-shelf products will be exempt form this requirement.

Any company not exempt from this clause will be required to enroll in E-Verify within 30 days of the contract award date and will be required to begin using E-Verify to confirm the legal work authorization of all their new hires and employees directly working on a federal contract.

U.S. Department of Education Launches Free Online English Training Tool

This week, the U.S. Department of Education launched a new free website, U.S.A. Learns, to help immigrants learn English. USALearns.org will give the more than 11 million adults in the U.S. with low levels of English proficiency free access to English language training modules.

U.S.A. Learns will include an easily accessible web-based learning tool with simple directions and free instructional materials that will help adults learn basic English skills. These training modules can be used outside of a traditional classroom environment.

“America’s limited-English adults will now have readily available materials to improve their literacy and help them become more productive workers, better parents, engaged community members and active citizens,” said Troy Justesen, assistant secretary, the Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

The new website is part of President Bush’s 26 immigration reform goals announced in August of last year. Bush’s series of reforms included measures to increase the assimilation of new citizens and support immigrants’ learning the English language to increase the opportunities they can access in this country.

USCIS Begins Process of Full Digitization of the Immigration Process

Broad and sweeping changes are in play for the way that immigration is managed in the U.S. The Bush administration has just chosen IBM Corporation to head a major initiative to fully digitize the immigration process for the seven million visa, citizenship and work authorization applications received by the federal organization each year.

The $500 million initiative to change USCIS’s case management system from its current, paper-based system to a fully electronic system, according to USCIS, would drastically reduce the backlogs and delays currently faced by USCIS. This new initiative will be the foundation of USCIS’s new system of reducing the painful effects of bureaucracy and managing potential future changes in immigration regulations, including the Guest Worker program exhaustingly discussed over the past few years.

The choice of IBM to manage USCIS’s digitization of its case management system is the first step in transforming the way USCIS functions, says acting USCIS director, Jonathan Scharfen. We’re proud of 2008 and the milestones we’ve met,” said Scharfen. “But, much work remains.”