Workforce

H-1B visa holders could be snared by shutdown

visa application

Employees in technology jobs who hold coveted H-1B foreign worker visas could find themselves in a federal paperwork bind if the partial government shutdown lingers much longer.

Holders of the visas might find they can't switch jobs or extend the amount of time covered by the document because of shuttered electronic filing and approval portals at the departments of Labor and Homeland Security.

The visas allow a limited number of foreign nationals with advanced science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees to work in the U.S. for three to six years.

Technology companies, from software developers to a host of IT-related firms, many of them federal contractors, employ thousands of H-1B workers. The available number of the foreign worker H-1B visas has been officially capped at 65,000 since 1990, but several proposals have been made to raise the cap to between 110,000 and 180,000.

The complex chain of approvals the visas can demand is further complicated by the government shutdown, according to Liam Crawford, coordinator of federal government affairs at TechAmerica and others familiar with the government's approval process for the documents.

During the hiring process, H1-B visa holders can fill out mandatory I-9 immigration forms for their employers using a foreign passport. However, in some states, and in the federal contracting community, employment requires an E-Verify background check for new employees along with the I-9 form's information. The agency that runs E-Verify, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has idled the service during the shutdown, as it is the only part of CIS that runs on appropriations.

E-Verify's shutdown, said CIS spokesman Steve Blando, does not affect the I-9 requirement and employers must still complete the form no later than the third business day after an employee starts work.

The three-day rule for entering the information into E-Verify is suspended for cases affected by the shutdown, Blando said. The larger problem, according to Crawford, is at the Labor Department, verifies H-1B extensions and approves H-1B holder transfers from one employer to another.

The Mondaq News Service, a legal, financial and regulatory issues website run by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, noted on Oct. 9 that the Department of Labor is not performing any of those operations during the shutdown.

Neither the online iCERT portal, which processes labor condition applications, nor the program electronic review management system, which handles H1-B extensions and transfers, are available. That could prove problematic for those looking to extend their visas or are using the small window of time granted to an H-1B employee to move from one employer to another, said Crawford. Other websites focusing on corporate law have said the same thing.

Blando said he could not comment on how the Labor Department is addressing its H-1B issues during the shutdown.

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