In 2024, several key updates in immigration policies are set to shape the landscape for international students, H-1B visa holders, and individuals navigating the complex web of immigration regulations in the United States. Here are a few headlines that we are keeping an eye on this year:
- F and M student visa updates
- H-1B renewal pilot program
- Processing fee increases
- H-1B lottery changes
- Equal Pay Transparency (EPT) laws
- Immigration-related state laws
F and M student visa clarification updates
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued updates regarding the policy guidance on classifications for F and M nonimmigrant student visas. The updates aim to consolidate and clarify existing policies and provide international students and US educational institutions with more precise guidelines. The guidance covers various topics, including the agency’s role in adjudicating applications for employment authorization, change of status, extension of stay, and reinstatement of status for students and their dependents in the United States.
The guidance clarifies that F and M students must intend to depart from the United States following their temporary periods of stay, typically after completing their degree program and any practical training. This stipulation is an essential part of the visa application process and is designed to ensure that students do not have the intention of permanently immigrating to the US. Notably, the policy clarifies that F and M students can be beneficiaries of a permanent labor certification application or immigrant visa petition without necessarily impacting their eligibility.
For employers, the guidance specifies that F-1 students pursuing the STEM optional practical training (OPT) extension can work for start-up businesses if regulatory requirements are met. During this extension, alternative forms of compensation, such as stock options, may be permitted as long as they are commensurate with the compensation provided to native-born US workers.
H-1B renewal pilot program for Canadian and Indian nationals makes in-country renewals more convenient
The US Department of State has introduced a pilot program for H-1B visa renewals that allows eligible individuals to renew their H-1B visas from within the United States. The program, in effect until April 1, 2024, is specifically designed for those with H-1B visas issued by US consulates in Canada (between January 1, 2020, and April 1, 2023) or in India (between February 1, 2021, and September 30, 2021).
With 4,000 weekly application slots available from January 29 to February 26, 2024, the criteria for eligibility include:
- The applicant must be seeking to renew an existing H-1B visa.
- The applicant must be eligible for an in-person visa interview waiver.
- The applicant must have submitted ten fingerprints to the consulate with a previous visa application.
- The applicant must have an approved and unexpired H-1B petition.
- The applicant must have recently been admitted to the United States in H-1B status.
- The applicant must be currently maintaining H-1B status in the United States.
- The applicant’s period of authorized admission in H-1B status must remain valid.
- The applicant must intend to reenter the United States in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad.
The program aims to streamline processes, reduce visa wait times, and shift workloads from overseas posts to the United States, benefiting Indian and Canadian nationals. Applications can be submitted until April 1, 2024; further details are available on the US Department of State website. The anticipated processing duration is estimated to be between 6 and 8 weeks, with the goal of completing all applications by May 1, 2024. Requests for expedited processing requests will not be included. In urgent travel needs, applicants applying for domestic visa renewal can withdraw their application and apply through the standard process abroad.
Processing fee increases may take effect in early 2024
The proposed processing fee changes affecting US immigrants will be effective on February 26, 2024. The fee increases include:
- H-1B/O-1/E-3/TN: from $2,500 to $2,805
- I-140 (Permanent Residency): from $2,500 to $2,805
- I-129 (Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker): from $1,750 to $1,965
- I-539 (Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status for certain categories): from $1,750 to $1,965
- I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization for certain categories): from $1,500 to $1,685
These fee adjustments reflect inflationary increases from June 2021 through June 2023. The premium processing services offer expedited processing for a variety of the most commonly used immigration benefits. The increased fees will be required for all requests postmarked on or after February 26, 2024.
The rationale behind adjusting premium processing fees is to account for inflation and to generate funds that can be used to provide premium processing services, improve existing adjudication processes, reduce processing backlogs, and enhance funding for other adjudication and naturalization services.
H-1B lottery changes
The proposed H-1B visa rule, announced on October 23, 2023, introduces changes to the H-1B selection process, which is expected to impact the upcoming H-1B lottery in March 2024. The key changes include a shift to focusing on unique beneficiaries rather than unique registrations, aiming to reduce the likelihood of multiple entries by the same individual and increase the opportunity for a diverse range of applicants.
Currently, USCIS employs a lottery system when the number of H-1B applications (or registrations) from companies surpasses the annual cap of 85,000 (comprising 65,000 regular slots and an additional 20,000 exemptions for advanced degree holders from US universities). According to the proposed rule, USCIS noted that registrations for Fiscal Year 2024 experienced a notable rise, primarily attributed to the submission of multiple registrations for the same individuals.
The new process will use passport information to identify beneficiaries, and individuals will select among the employers that submitted H-1B registrations on their behalf. While employers may benefit from certain aspects of the proposed rule, such as the “cap-gap” employment protection for international students, there have been some criticisms. Specifically, the rule introduces the term “directly related specific specialty” to narrow down positions considered specialty occupations. According to the rule, a degree in a directly related specific specialty is required for a position to qualify as a specialty occupation.
According to Forbes, “Evidence indicates the new narrower definition of what qualifies as an H-1B specialty occupation would prevent an indeterminate number of current and future foreign-born professionals from working in the United States.” Notably, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) does not explicitly state that a degree must be in a “directly related” specific specialty. Concerns are raised that these proposed restrictions may also be at odds with the goal of attracting AI talent that was outlined in President Biden’s AI executive order.
Emerging Equal Pay Transparency (EPT) laws
The Equal Pay Transparency (EPT) laws, passed in several states and localities, are expected to significantly impact the immigration landscape in 2024. These laws typically require the disclosure of pay ranges in recruitment. Specifically, the EPT laws may affect the federal Labor Condition Application (LCA) notice requirements for H-1B petitions, as well as the recruitment process required for PERM labor certification.
The EPT laws’ requirement for disclosure of pay scales and pay ranges will require adjustments in employers’ recruitment practices, especially in jurisdictions where these laws are in effect. The specific requirements of the EPT laws vary by location, and compliance with these laws is essential for employers.
Employers must adhere to state pay transparency laws and the prevailing wage requirements set by the Department of Labor (DOL), even when they may not align with the salary ranges specified for other positions. As a result, the EPT laws are expected to introduce changes in recruitment and advertising practices, impacting the immigration-related green card recruitment process and the H-1B visa application process. We recommend employers consult a reputable immigration law firm to ensure strict compliance with immigration regulations.
Immigration-related state laws
Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed three border security bills into state law on December 18, 2023, with the laws set to take effect in the coming months. One of the bills, Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), makes illegal immigration a state crime and grants Texas law enforcement the authority to arrest any undocumented immigrant within state lines. This law is scheduled to take effect on March 5, 2024. The legislation also allocates $1.5 billion in state funds to continue the construction of barriers along the 1,200-mile border with Mexico.
Additionally, it allows the state to pursue and prosecute irregular border crossings as state-level crimes, with charges ranging from a misdemeanor to a felony. The US Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Texas, arguing that SB 4 is unconstitutional and interferes with the federal government’s authority to regulate immigration. The lawsuit seeks to prevent Texas from implementing the law, citing violations of the US Constitution’s Supremacy Clause and Foreign Commerce Clause. The outcome of the legal challenges and the implementation of SB 4 will have significant implications for immigration policy and enforcement in Texas.
In Illinois, a new law is set to take effect, allowing non-citizens who are legally authorized to work in the US and permitted to possess firearms under federal law to become state police officers and deputy sheriffs. This law, known as House Bill 3751, is scheduled to take effect in the coming weeks, and it extends the opportunity to apply for these law enforcement positions to legal permanent residents and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
The legislation has sparked significant debate, with proponents arguing that it addresses a longstanding shortage of police officers in Illinois. At the same time, critics have raised concerns about the implications of allowing non-citizens to serve in these roles. The law’s supporters emphasize that it is specifically limited to individuals legally eligible to work in the US and authorized to possess firearms under federal law. The measure is a significant development in the ongoing national conversation about immigration policy and law enforcement practices.
California is set to become the first state to offer health insurance to all eligible undocumented adults as the state expands its health care coverage under a new law that took effect on January 1, 2024. This expansion will make more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants between the ages of 26 and 49 eligible for Medi-Cal, California’s version of the federal Medicaid program for low-income people. Previously, Medi-Cal was only available to children and undocumented individuals over 50.
The move is part of California’s efforts to provide comprehensive healthcare and ensure that all residents have access to affordable healthcare coverage regardless of income or immigration status. The expansion is expected to cost the state about $3.1 billion per year and is seen as a significant step in closing the gap in healthcare access for low-income immigrants living in California. The new law has been praised by immigration and healthcare advocates, who believe that the expanded coverage will ultimately save the state money by providing comprehensive care and reducing the need for expensive emergency room treatments. However, some critics have raised concerns about the cost of the expansion and the eligibility of undocumented immigrants for state-funded health insurance.
Multiple states impacted
In 2024, nearly 10 million people in 22 states across the US are expected to experience a rise in the minimum wage, with an estimated $6.95 billion in additional wages projected to be distributed due to these increases. Furthermore, on January 1, an additional 38 cities and counties will raise their minimum wages above their respective state’s “wage floors.” While some small business owners express concerns about the long-term implications of these changes, proponents of the wage hikes argue that they have the potential to positively impact hundreds of thousands of individuals.
The Economic Policy Institute states, “The minimum wage increases will also disproportionately benefit Black and Hispanic workers. Black workers make up 9.0% of the wage-earning workforce in the states with increases but are 11.1% of the affected workers. Similarly, Hispanic workers are 19.6% of the workforce in these states, but 37.9% of the workers receiving wage increases.”
Looking forward in 2024
The immigration landscape in 2024 is marked by significant policy updates impacting students, visa holders, and individuals navigating complex regulations. From F and M student visa clarifications to the innovative H-1B renewal pilot program and impending processing fee increases, individuals and employers must stay informed. The proposed H-1B lottery changes and emerging Equal Pay Transparency laws add further complexity to the landscape.
Amid these shifts, Stump and Associates stand ready to assist with immigration concerns. As a reputable immigration law firm, our experienced professionals offer guidance on policy nuances, procedural changes, and strategic approaches. Whether addressing visa renewals, navigating lottery modifications, or ensuring compliance with evolving laws, our team is committed to providing comprehensive support. For tailored immigration solutions and expert counsel, contact Stump and Associates today. Your immigration journey deserves knowledgeable and dedicated advocates by your side.
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