As most of our readers know, on November 20, President Obama announced a number of sweeping and historic immigration measures to address the country’s pressing immigration issues. The overriding principles behind the President’s announcement are: (1) prioritizing immigration law enforcement on those who pose a threat to the United States; (2) creating a program that ensures family unity; (3) facilitating the entry of highly skilled workers who contribute to the U.S. economy, and retaining those who are already here; and (4) securing the country’s borders. Two initiatives will grant work authorization and a shield against deportation for an estimated 4–5 million undocumented immigrants. Other initiatives will benefit over 400,000 foreign national employees waiting for green cards. While the announcement dominated the news and social media for several weeks, none of the actions outlined in the President’s speech and by the Department of Homeland Security shortly thereafter has taken effect.

The articles below summarize the President’s executive action, describe who is likely to be impacted, and explain when in the coming months these measures will be available to eligible foreign nationals. 

Expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): As announced, the program that went into effect in 2012 will be expanded by eliminating the current age cap of 31 (as of the date of the original DACA announcement). Also, the eligibility cut-off date by which an applicant must have been in the United States will be moved to January 1, 2010. Moreover, USCIS will grant DACA and work authorization for three instead of two years, which also will be extended to pending DACA renewal applicants.

USCIS expects to accept DACA application under the extended program within 90 days of November 20.

Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA): USCIS will create a new deferred action process, similar to DACA, for parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents — such children must have been born as of November 20, 2014 — who have been continuously present in the U.S. since before January 1, 2010; who were physically present in the U.S. on November 20, 2014; and who are present at the time of application. Eligible parent-applicants will be able to request deferred action and employment authorization for three years, provided they pass required background checks.

USCIS expects to begin accepting applications within 180 days of the November 20 announcement.

Expansion of Provisional Waiver Program: The provisional waiver process permits individuals who are eligible to apply for their green cards but who must apply for a waiver of inadmissibility because they have been in the United States unlawfully to do so from within the U.S. before departing for an interview at U.S. consulate abroad. Currently, only immediate relatives (spouses and children of U.S. citizens) are eligible to apply for provisional waivers. Under the expanded program, eligibility for such waivers will become available to all relatives for whom an immigrant visa is available.  In other words, the provisional waiver will be available to the spouses and children of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) as well as other relatives of U.S. citizen-petitioners. Under the provisional waiver program, applicants must show “extreme” hardship to certain U.S. citizen or LPR family members. Under the new directive, USCIS also has been instructed to provide guidance on the definition of “extreme” hardship. The agency may also consider criteria by which a presumption of extreme hardship may apply, which would make it easier for otherwise eligible green card applicants to obtain this necessary waiver.

This change will be done by regulation, but no time frame has been provided.

Work Authorization for H-4 Spouses: A rule already proposed would permit H-4 spouses of H-1B employees to apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card. The rule as proposed limited eligibility to H-4 spouses whose H-1B spouse has begun the process to obtain permanent residency.

Final rulemaking is expected later this month or in January 2015.

Foreign Student Optional Practical Training (OPT): The length of time for OPT for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates of U.S. institutions will be extended, and additional expansions of this program may occur, including the number of degree programs eligible for OPT.

This will be done by regulation, but no time frame has been provided.

PERM Labor Certification: Perhaps the most common way for employees to obtain green cards is through a labor certification showing that no U.S. workers are willing, able, or available to perform the job.

Regulations will be published to modernize the PERM program and to make the program more responsive to changes in the U.S. workforce.

Relief for Employees Awaiting Green Cards and Modernizing the Employment-Based Visa System: Each year thousands of visas go unused because the allocation system is not precise. These unused visas could be recaptured so that those waiting for their green cards can get them more quickly. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has directed USCIS to undertake several steps to modernize the employment-based visa system, including exploring with the Department of State optimal use of the annual visa allocations. Another measure is to permit individuals with an approved I-140 employment-based petition and caught in the lengthy visa backlog to pre-register for adjustment of status and obtain the benefits of pending adjustment. Such benefits would include obtaining EADs and travel permits. It is presumed that this would include the employee-principal applicants as well as their family-member dependents. These changes could provide tremendous flexibility for employers and their foreign national personnel. Moreover, USCIS has been instructed to clarify the types of job changes (“same or similar”) that do not require new PERM applications, and to make it clear that promotions to supervisory positions and transitions to related jobs in the field of endeavor are permissible. The change is expected to affect about 410,000 people.

No time frame has been provided for when these changes would be implemented.

Promoting Research, Development, and Entrepreneurship: Certain foreign “inventors, researchers, and founders of start up enterprises” will be afforded new immigration options, through the clarification by USCIS that the National Interest Waiver employment-based immigrant visa category is appropriate for some and granting parole status for others.

These changes will be implemented by policy memo and regulation, but no time frame has been provided.

L-1B Specialized Knowledge Intracompany Transferees: USCIS has been instructed to issue a long-awaited policy memorandum that will “provide clear, consolidated guidance on the meaning of specialized knowledge.” It is expected that a more lenient and consistent interpretation of the law will be implemented, which will provide more certainty for companies and reduce denials. 

Southern Border and Approaches Campaign: DHS has commissioned three new task forces, with personnel realignments to improve border security. The announcement specifically states that the objectives should not impede travel, lawful trade, and commerce.

“Secure Communities”: The controversial deportation program, also referred to as 289(g), is discontinued. The program relied on integrated databases and partnerships with local and state jailers to build domestic deportation capacity and required local law enforcement to detain individuals for ICE custody. Many state and local partners as well as rights advocates and others came to resent the program because of its detrimental effect on local law-enforcement operations, and because it became a general deportation facilitation tool rather than a tool for deporting criminals.

Immediately after President Obama’s executive action was issued, the legality of his authority and actions was raised. While many legal scholars, including some 130 law professors and former general counsel of the immigration service, have stated that the President’s actions are within the legal authority of the government’s executive branch and are consistent with similar actions taken by other presidents, a lawsuit was filed by 17 states in U.S. district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The suit alleges that the Administration’s immigration executive actions violate the “Take Care Clause” of U.S. Constitution (Art. II, Sec. 3, Cl. 5) and Administrative Procedure Act (APA). It remains to seen what the court will do.

In any event, none of these programs has been implemented, and it may be months before the publication of any policy guidance or formal regulations that give these action effect. Moreover, President Obama’s actions do not provide permanent relief or status to anyone, and Congress can enact legislation to supersede any and all of these reform measures.

For months to come, the agencies will provide explanations, instructions, forms, and more detailed procedures as necessary, and we will provide those details as we learn of them. In the meantime, our experienced attorneys are available to answer questions and determine how you may benefit.