Government October 2013 Shutdown to Haunt H-1B and other Foreign Workers

Effective October 1, 2013, U.S. federal government operations are experiencing a lapse in appropriations due to the inability of Congress to pass a funding bill.  The shutdown is preventing employers from filing H-1B petitions for new employees, as well as from seeking extensions for existing H-1B workers.  Other immigration categories are affected, as well.  As a consequence, some foreign workers will be forced into a lapse of status that could impact not only current status, but also future efforts to obtain a green card. 

Shutdown Implications on H-1B Status

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Department of Homeland Security is the agency that adjudicates H-1B petitions.  Because it is funded by fees, USCIS is not shutdown and could process H-1B cases. 

However, the Department of Labor (DOL) is shutdown, with employees furloughed and operations suspended.  The DOL is the agency that determines prevailing wages for H-1B cases.  Before filing an H-1B case, employers submit a prevailing wage request to the DOL online with a Labor Condition Application (LCA).  The DOL has ceased accepting LCAs as of October 1, and also ceased processing LCAs pending as of that date.  Without an LCA certified by the DOL, USCIS cannot process an H-1B. 

Though it is open, USCIS is refusing to accept any H-1Bs, returning entire packages with a notice directing to “resubmit your petition with a properly signed Labor Condition Application,” because the “form you submitted is missing the Department of Labor official’s signature.” 

The DOL takes seven days to process LCAs.  To have avoided stalled H-1B petitions, an employer must have submitted an LCA to the DOL online by September 24, so that the LCA could have been certified and contain the requisite “Department of Labor official’s signature” by September 30, while the DOL still was functioning. 

As an alternative to the online LCA processing, the DOL could accept paper-filed LCAs.  However, mail and courier packages sent to the DOL after October 1 have been undelivered because all the workers are furloughed, and there is no one to receive any deliveries.  FedEx notices for attempted delivery say “Business closed.”

This aspect of the shutdown will prevent employers from hiring H-1B workers who otherwise would be able to transfer from existing employers.  It also will force current employees with valid status to appear to fall out of status if their H-1B expires after October 1 and an extension is not currently pending with USCIS.

USCIS could agree to accept H-1B petitions without signed LCAs, as it has done in the past, and also could accept pro forma, unfiled LCAs.  By simply accepting the petition and issuing a receipt notice, USCIS would give sufficient evidence that the H-1B worker could lawfully remain in the U.S. and continue working pending LCA certification and pending final H-1B adjudication.  Without such discretion, USCIS will force a worker to lose status and ultimately will make more work for itself when adjudicating subsequent petitions.  

Shutdown Implications on E-3 Status

E-3 status is similar to H-1B status, but is based on a treaty between the U.S. and Australia and only is available to Australian citizens.  E-3 status also requires an LCA.  As with H-1Bs, USCIS will not accept E-3 petitions with LCAs the DOL did not certify before the shutdown. 

E-3 visas alternatively may be processed through the Department of State at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. However, they, too, insist on a certified LCA for E-3s.  In general, the State Department is open for visa processing.  It is possible to make an E-3 visa appointment at an embassy or consulate, but the E-3 will not be processed until the shutdown has lifted and the visa applicant presents an LCA certified with the “Department of Labor official’s signature.”

Options for Alleviating Implications on Temporary Workers

USCIS regulations provide for excusing a status lapse that occurred through no fault of the foreign worker. USCIS tends to insist on evidence of what caused the status lapse as well as efforts to avoid it.  Employers with workers facing H-1B or E-3 expiration must do the following:

  • File the extension application, even though it is certain the petition will be rejected;
  • Keep the evidence of rejection to submit when refiling after the government shutdown ends; and
  • When a petition is filed for the worker who fell out of status, request that USCIS exercise its discretion to forgive the lapse.

One other option for H-1Bs is that is the worker can request an additional 10 days added to the expiration date before status expires.  The request is made to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), another agency under the Department of Homeland Security.  CBP is located at land border crossings and international airports, and has inland “Deferred Action” sites what may provide evidence of the 10-day period.  CBP typically gives the additional 10-day period on request at entry to the U.S., for an H-1B worker who anticipates needing the time period to wrap up matters after the H-1B job ends, prior to returning home.  Under these circumstances, ten days could be enough time for the government to re-open, an LCA to be submitted and certified, and for USCIS to accept the H-1B petition.  Having the additional 10-day authorization could alleviate complications for some. 

Shutdown Implications on Future Green Card

The green card process can last for years, depending on backlogs and other factors.  Those affected by the shutdown could feel the impact on future applications for permanent residence.  

A general condition of seeking to adjust from a temporary status, such as H-1B or E-3 status, to permanent resident status with a green card, is that the person must have maintained status throughout the duration of stay in the United States.  There are some exceptions.  For most employment-based green card cases, under Section 245(k) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, certain types of status violation that lasted for under 180 days, including work without evidence of authorization, could be excused, enabling the person to become a permanent resident despite the lapse.  Again, excusing the status violation is up to the discretion of USCIS, but the circumstances of U.S. government intransigence merit the exercise of discretion.

Employers should note, however, that Section 245(k) does not excuse compliance with rules requiring employment verification.

USCIS could lighten the burden of the government shutdown on employers and their foreign workers.  Even if it does not, some exceptions and work-arounds exist.  But the unintended consequences of this October 2013 shutdown could haunt foreign workers for years into the future.