United States: What Disclaimer? – USCIS Ignores Labor Department Warning That The Occupational Outlook Handbook Never Be Used For Legal Purposes

[Blogger's Note:  Today's post originates from a discovery – a gem hidden in plain sight – first brought to my attention by   Gabe Mozes, my immigration partner at Seyfarth Shaw, and co-author of this piece. Great immigration lawyer that he is, Gabe raised a particularly galling example of how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) pursues extralegal, pretextual grounds, far afield from its supposed expertise, to deny employment-based requests for immigration benefits. In the birthing process, this post generated a slew of exchanges by email between us, much of it involving a friendly dispute over the eventual title. Initially, I proposed, "USCIS ~ The 'Expertly' Inexpert Immigration Agency." He parried with, "What Disclaimer? USCIS Ignores DOL Instructions Not To Use OOH for Legal Purposes." I responded with the suggestion to add  before "USCIS" in the title, "Sciolist" ("[one] who pretends to be knowledgeable and well informed"), or "Ultracrepidarian" ("one who is presumptuous and offers advice or opinions beyond one's sphere of knowledge"). You get the point, we compromised. His genial if begrudging email acceptance expressed mild disappointment that the post below beats around the bush: "[While] I like your angle, my original intent was to be more direct and hard-hitting.  I may draft a separate one. The time for skirting around the edges is over."  So stay tuned.]

In our increasingly complex and specialized world, we all seek out experts — be they plumbers, arborists, fertility specialists, immigration lawyers, or other categories of seasoned practitioners. Why? Because getting the right result is important. True or not, experts are usually seen as having more than ordinary knowledge because they are credentialed through education, training, skill, long experience, or a mélange of these attributes.

Reliance on experts — most people generally assume — is preferable to taking a chance on an amateur. This assumption underlies a venerable judge-crafted principle of administrative law known as the deference principle, i.e., if the words in a statute are ambiguous, courts will ordinarily defer to an administrative agency's interpretations of its own regulations administering the law.

The "principle of deference to administrative interpretations" – on its face – makes logical sense, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in its long-standing precedent decision, Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 US 837 (1984)  (Chevron). The principal rests on the hallowed concept of judicial restraint, and the recognition by the courts that whenever Congress enacts broadly applicable laws , it may also confer on relevant Executive Branch agencies the authority to interpret and implement what may later involve situations which Congress perhaps never anticipated:

[The deference principle applies whenever a] decision as to the meaning or reach of a statute has involved reconciling conflicting policies, and a full understanding of the force of the statutory policy in the given situation has depended upon more than ordinary knowledge respecting the matters subjected to agency regulations. Chevron, 467 US at 844. (Emphasis added.)

But what if a plumber, after merely skimming Arboriculture for Dummies, were to offer expert advice on how to cure diseased trees ? For a homeowner to defer to the plumber's advice would be sheer folly.  Equally absurd would be if a seemingly infertile couple were to rely upon the guidance of an immigration lawyer expounding on advanced techniques of in vitro fertilization.

Unfortunately, however, ultracrepidarianism happens every business day at USCIS (the agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with determining eligibility for such immigration benefits as work visas, travel permits, green cards, and naturalization). USCIS's Immigration Service Officers (ISOs or simply, adjudicators) routinely offer ill-informed proclamations about immigration issues which Congress has rightly tasked the DOL to address and resolve.

Sadly, this has been going on for decades, not only in USCIS but also at its agency predecessor, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), where the former INS General Counsel cautioned INS that it had no authority to interfere with decisions by Department of Labor (DOL) that an employer had violated DOL H-1B (specialty-occupation visa) regulations, and therefore must be debarred by INS from sponsoring employment-based requests for immigration benefits.  See, INS GENCO Opinion, CO 212(n)P (April 12, 1994).

For years now, USCIS's ISOs have blindly and lazily "borrowed" from the hard work, expertise, data repositories, research materials, and regulations of the DOL, a distinct federal department with specialized immigration-related domain knowledge, experience and training over such employment-related matters as job requirements, wages, and working conditions.

One class of the USCIS adjudicators' favorite pontifications are the inferences they draw from the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), a DOL Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publication intended to provide the public with "career information on duties, education and training, pay, and outlook for hundreds of occupations."

When penning decisions denying employment-based immigration benefits, USCIS adjudicators unfortunately are wont to wax poetic about statements in the OOH as if they were spouting "thou shalt nots" from the Decalogue. For example, in response to U.S. employer visa petitions seeking the okay to employ or continue employing H-1B workers in specialty occupations, USCIS officers routinely issue Requests for Additional Evidence (RFEs) stating that the agency "routinely consults the Department of Labor's [OOH] for information about the duties and educational requirements of particular occupations." USCIS then uses the OOH description for a particular job, say a Management Analyst, to argue that the position does not qualify for an H-1B under the "specialty occupation" standards at 8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A). This is because ISOs interpret the OOH as saying that the job cannot be a specialty occupation since some employers are willing to hire persons with a bachelor's or master's degree in various academic majors, or that a small percentage of employers will accept someone with less than a baccalaureate degree.

The problem with the USCIS adjudicators' wholesale lifting of OOH excerpts – which are often taken out of context or misquoted – is that ISOs completely disregard the BLS's own published restrictions contained in its "Disclaimer" accompanying the OOH, which provides in relevant part:

[The] OOH provides a general, composite description of jobs and cannot be expected to reflect work situations in specific establishments or localities. The OOH, therefore, is not intended to, and should never, be used for any legal purpose. For example, the OOH should not be used as a guide for determining wages . . . BLS has no role in establishing educational . . . standards for any occupation. . . The education information in the OOH presents the typical requirements for entry into the given occupation and does not describe the education and training of those individuals already employed in the occupation. . . . [The] information in the OOH should not be used to determine if an applicant is qualified to enter a specific job in an occupation. (Emphasis added.)

Another illustration confirming USCIS adjudicators' purloining of OOH excerpts is found in their common practice of rigidly relying on this publication when deciding whether long-delayed green card applicants can invoke the "job flexibility" benefits granted by Congress that permit workers to change jobs or employers without being required to go back to the end of the immigrant visa queue.  This "job-portability" law allows green card applicants to pursue career advancement despite USCIS or visa-quota backlogs of more than six months as long as the new job is in the "same or [a] similar occupational classification." See, the USCIS Adjudicator's Field Manual, Chapter 20.2(e), Note 5 ("ISOs may reference additional resources to determine whether [two] jobs are in the same or similar occupational classification(s), including, the DOL Bureau of Labor Statistics' [OOH]").

Unfortunately, USCIS adjudicators' misbehavior in poaching from the DOL is not limited to the OOH. Yet another USCIS encroachment on DOL's immigration turf involves reliance in the H-1B "Specialty Occupation" work visa category on an outdated "itinerary" requirement incorporated into agency regulations based on the immigration laws in existence in 1952, a rule intended to maintain agency oversight of the intra-U.S. meandering of athletes and entertainers (who have had their own visa categories, the O and P classifications, since 1990). Immigration litigator, Jonathan Wasden, in a tour de force complaint, ITServe Alliance v. USCIS, filed October 11, 2018 in the Federal District Court for the DC Circuit, calls out USCIS interloping in its recurrent attempts to define the H-1B "area of intended employment," found in DOL regulations, even though USCIS only has statutory authority to determine if the job and the worker involve a specialty occupation.

Whatever the validity or benefit of the agency deference principle in other contexts, its application to the USCIS adjudicators' mass appropriation and misapplication of DOL source materials must be stopped. USCIS must not be given Chevron deference when the DOL itself cautions that the OOH: (1) should "never" be used "for any legal purpose," (2) "should not be used to determine if an applicant is qualified to enter a specific job in an occupation," and (3) "does not describe the education and training of those individuals already employed in the occupation."

Simply put, the courts or Congress should take USCIS out of the business of pilfering and impersonating DOL expertise.

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