2015 Year in Review

On October 3, 2015, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (INA) celebrated its 50 year anniversary. The INA banned discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas based on “race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” It also imposed annuals limits of visas for immigrants from certain countries. The shift in demographic diversity seen in the U.S. population today is a direct result in the enactment of the INA.

Immigration legislation and regulations continue to have a profound effect on the U.S. job force, as well as the demographic make-up of the country. The year 2015 saw widespread immigration-related enactments pertaining to education, health, law enforcement, public benefits and more. Below is a brief overview of the past year in immigration.

President’s Executive Action: Litigation continues as a result of President Barack Obama’s Executive Action, announced on November 20, 2014. The series of executive actions were aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration at the border, prioritizing deporting felons not families, and requiring certain undocumented immigrants to pass a criminal background check and pay taxes in order to temporarily stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation. These initiatives included: (1) expanding the population eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to people of any current age who entered the United States before the age of 16 and lived in the United States continuously since January 1, 2010, and extending the period of DACA and work authorization from two years to three years; (2) allowing parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to request deferred action and employment authorization for three years, in a new Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, provided they have lived in the United States continuously since January 1, 2010, and pass required background checks; (3) expanding the use of provisional waivers of unlawful presence to include the spouses and sons and daughters of lawful permanent residents and the sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; modernizing, improving and clarifying immigrant and nonimmigrant visa programs to grow our economy and create jobs; and (4) promoting citizenship education and public awareness for lawful permanent residents and providing an option for naturalization applicants to use credit cards to pay the application fee.

At the end of 2014, a direct challenge against the President’s execution actions was filed in federal court by the attorney general of Texas, on behalf of 17 states. By January 26, 2015, the number of states participating in the lawsuit had grown to 26. As of the end of 2015, this litigation remains on-going, and on November 20, 2015, the United States Department of Justice appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court. The ongoing litigation is estimated to be affected 5 million immigrants.

Naturalization: On September 19, 2015, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it would begin to accept credit card payments to pay the filing fee for Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. Naturalization applicants may also use a credit card to pay the biometrics fee. The announcement is part of a larger agency effort to encourage naturalization. USCIS also announced that it has developed online tools to help lawful permanent residents prepare for naturalization, locate English and citizenship classes, determine eligibility and apply for naturalization. An interactive practice civils test is now available. USCIS also awarded $10 million in grants to 40 organizations in 26 states to support citizenship preparation activities to help permanent residents apply for citizenship.

H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2015: Also in 2015, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senator Dick Durbin introduced a bill to amend the INA to reform and reduce fraud and abuse in certain visa programs for aliens working temporarily in the United States, and for other purposes. The bill, entitled the “H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2015,” seeks to modify the H-1B and L-1 programs currently in place by placing restrictions on and additional requirements on employers. If the bill passes, it will affect companies hiring high-skilled workers, many of which are tech companies. In 2015, the H-1B cap was reached within six (6) days. USCIS also received more than the limit of 20,000 H-1B petitions filed under the U.S. advanced degree exemption.

H-4 Employment: In February, USCIS Director León Rodríguez announced that, effective May 26, 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is extending eligibility for employment authorization to certain H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants who are seeking employment-based lawful permanent resident (LPR) status. DHS amended the regulations to allow these H-4 dependent spouses to accept employment in the United States.

Unskilled Agricultural Workers: Legislation has also been introduced this year that will affect unskilled workers, particularly agricultural workers. The state of Washington passed House Bill 1127, which creates the Agricultural Labor Skills and Safety Grant Program. This program is intended to design and implement an agricultural skills program and provide health and safety training; develop a plan to increase the number of skilled agricultural workers through outreach; and, evaluate trainings and service delivery strategies for agricultural workers and employers.

E-Verify: E-Verify, the optional Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States, is now mandated for state agencies in Texas as of 2015. Indiana also passed a law requiring contractors to use E-Verify before work begins on a project. In August, USCIS launched a Spanish version of myEVerify. myEVerify is the program for employees and job seekers to access features for identity protection in E-Verify and visibility into the E-Verify process.

EB-5 Investor Program: The EB-5 investor program may also experience changes within the next year. In June of this year, Senators Leahy and Grassley introduced a bill that would increase investment requirements to be applied retroactively to June 1, 2015. The draft bill would increase the minimum investment amount for Targeted Employment Area (TEA) investments to $800,000 and for non-TEA investments to $1,200,000. It would also make substantial changes to the definition of a TEA.

H-2A and H-2B Temporary Worker Program: On November 18, 2015, USCIS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in consultation with the Department of State, added Andorra, Belgium, Brunei, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, Singapore, Taiwan, and Timor-Leste to the list of countries whose nationals are eligible to participate in the H-2A and H-2B Visa programs for the coming year.

Naturalization- Spanish Language Civics Practice Test: On November 19, 2015, USCIS launched an online Spanish-language civics practice test, joining the English version released earlier this year. The questions are presented in English with Spanish subtitles and focus on basic U.S. government and history topics. The goal is to help Spanish-speaking lawful permanent residents studying for the naturalization test with retaining the information and gaining a firmer grasp of English.

Introducing: “Emma”: USCIS has continued its efforts to improve customer experience. On December 2, 2015, USCIS launched a virtual assistant named “Emma” on its website, which allows customers to quickly find accurate information. She answers questions in plain English and navigates users to relevant USCIS web pages.

U.S. Passports: At the end of 2015, the U.S. Department of State announced that it will no longer add visa pages into U.S. passports beginning January 1, 2016. Previously, U.S. passport holders had the option to pay for the insertion of additional 24-page visa inserts when valid passports lacked adequate space for entry or exit visa stamps.

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