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Beverly Hills, California, United States
Eli Kantor is a labor, employment and immigration law attorney. He has been practicing labor, employment and immigration law for more than 36 years. He has been featured in articles about labor, employment and immigration law in the L.A. Times, Business Week.com and Daily Variety. He is a regular columnist for the Daily Journal. Telephone (310)274-8216; eli@elikantorlaw.com. For more information, visit beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com and and beverlyhillsemploymentlaw.com


Monday, April 08, 2024

Cost of work visas surges, upping the ante for multitude of California’s small businesses

WASHINGTON — When his entertainment industry clients want to hire foreign actors for a film shoot, Los Angeles immigration attorney Ally Bolour has to time the visa filings carefully, to secure their entry close to the production start date while meeting the tight schedules of performers. Often, there’s little wiggle room. Now, Bolour’s clients not only must pay more for visa filings but also face a potentially longer wait. Bolour usually applies under expedited “premium processing.” That fee went up 12% to $2,805 while the new turnaround time was lengthened from two to three weeks. This is one example of what California businesses face in the wake of the U.S. government’s sweeping visa fee increases, some of them astronomical, and other related changes that took effect April 1. ADVERTISING President Joe Biden walks on the South Lawn of the White House after stepping off Marine One, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Washington. Biden is returning to Washington after spending the weekend in Delaware. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) POLITICS Employers of foreign workers would pay more under Biden proposal Jan. 3, 2023 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says the fee hikes are necessary to keep operating and prevent its current backlog of cases from piling even higher. But lawyers, immigrant advocates and small businesses say it’s an unfair burden. Some have sued to stop the fee increases from taking place. “It’s a big, extra out-of-pocket expense, and you get no extra benefit,” said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a Washington think tank that favors higher levels of immigration. The changes come as demand for certain foreign labor, especially high-skilled workers, has surged, in part as companies expand their efforts in artificial intelligence and other emerging fields. The country also continues to grapple with labor shortages in various industries. Insights and Updates on the Business of Entertainment & Sports PAID CONTENT Insights and Updates on the Business of Entertainment & Sports By LA Times Hon. Katherine “Kate” Chilton (Ret.), Arbitrator, Mediator, Special Master/Referee and Neutral Evaluator, JAMS Although some argue that popular visa programs such as H-1B allow employers to substitute cheaper foreign engineers and computer scientists for American workers, others say being able to recruit talent from around the world is indispensable for their growth. “It’s not necessarily about the talent available in the U.S.,” said Brian Riley, vice president of global talent acquisition at Riot Games, a leading video game company based in Los Angeles, with offices and customers in different parts of the world. Recruiting globally, he said, enables the company to hire the best people for specific roles, and to bring in talent that understands the global audience. “It has huge impact on our ability to continue to make or to improve products that resonate with players across all regions, not just the U.S,” Riley said. ADVERTISING Riot Games, which employs about 4,400 people globally, including 2,900 in its Los Angeles office, was one of the top H-1B users in Los Angeles in fiscal 2023, with 83 approvals. Led by tech companies, California employers overall accounted for more than 19,300 H-1B approvals for initial employment in 2023, or 16.3% of the nation’s total. Texas was second, with 15%. California businesses also depend on foreign workers for temporary help at farms and to fill seasonal openings at resort hotels and tourist sites. Visa application fees for those workers more than doubled to $1,090. Fieldworkers picking strawberries on a California farm Workers pick strawberries on a California farm. (David Rodriguez/ Salinas Californian) As of April 1, the cost to file an H-1B application, which allows skilled foreign nationals to work in the United States for up to six years, rose 70% to $780. Tack on fees for registration and fraud prevention, attorney costs and extras such as premium processing, and the H-1B petition expense could easily come to several thousand dollars per prospective employee. For small employers, “I think it’s a real hardship for people,” said San Francisco attorney Lisa Spiegel, whose team of 15 immigration specialists at the law firm Duane Morris handles thousands of visa petitions every year. She said they had worked round the clock in recent weeks to beat the April 1 fee increase for clients. Among the sharpest increases, the filing fee for the L-1, which allows an employer to transfer one of its overseas-based workers to the U.S., tripled to $1,385. And employers now must pay a new, $600 fee for certain employment-based visas to offset the cost of processing asylum applications, which are free and have skyrocketed in recent years. Katherine Belcher, spokesperson for the federal immigration agency, said the new fees are the result of a comprehensive review that found shortfalls in recovering the full cost of operations, including humanitarian programs, mandatory pay raises and additional staffing requirements. The agency receives very little funding from Congress, and it last imposed a fee hike in 2016. Belcher said the agency’s analysis indicates that the fee hikes won’t significantly affect business development and employee expansion. The new fee rule also ensures waivers for low-income and vulnerable populations, and expands exemptions for certain humanitarian benefits. Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, a member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, says the immigration agency has made progress in streamlining operations, but it needs more staff and to go increasingly to electronic filing rather than doing things by paper. “Given that they’re fee-funded, they’re in a bind and have to do something,” she said. For big employers such as Google, Apple and Meta — the top three H-1B visa getters in California — the higher fees are little more than an annoyance and won’t hinder their efforts to recruit people from abroad, though they will still add millions of dollars in expenses. Despite rising overall unemployment and layoffs in tech, the competition for skilled workers remains fierce. And tech companies aren’t likely to let hundreds or even thousands of dollars of extra fees get in the way of their global search for the best workers. “We have also recognized that the fees have increased, but they haven’t increased in a way that we view them as prohibitive,” said Riley of Riot Games. “The value in the diverse perspectives that [global employees] bring to the organization — they put us in a position to see a return that’s much greater than what we might pay in processing fees.” The West Los Angeles campus of Riot Games. The West Los Angeles campus of Riot Games. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times) It’s another story for some small employers. There are dozens in Los Angeles alone that received just three or four H-1B visa approvals last year; they include tech companies, banks, law firms and engineering and healthcare enterprises. For them, it’s about both the cost and the timeliness of approvals. Yet it remains to be seen whether the $1.1 billion in additional annual revenue that the agency expects to generate will mean faster and better processing of visa petitions. “It’s the million-dollar question,” said Spiegel, the San Francisco attorney. The increases probably will cause companies to pull back on some immigration benefits they support, said Lynden Melmed, who was chief counsel for the immigration agency from 2007 to 2009 and now oversees government strategies for the law firm Berry Appleman & Leiden. That includes paying employees’ spouses’ application fees, certain travel benefits or premium processing for speedier responses. For those who say companies undercut American workers by hiring immigrants, Melmed said the fee increases prove otherwise: “Once you get into those size numbers they’re more expensive than a non-foreign worker — it’s because they have particular skills.” Absent congressional support, he said, the agency will eventually have to confront whether to meet humanitarian needs or drive fees even higher. “It’s almost like you’ve bled out the source of your fees,” he said. “Businesses have been very supportive, but at a certain point that might cause a conflict between businesses and humanitarian programs.” A blue, orange, purple, black geometric illustration POLITICS More than a million could die waiting for green cards as U.S. immigration buckles amid COVID Aug. 4, 2022 For immigrant workers, the higher fees are stoking both anger and worry. Anuj Christian, 38, a development operations engineer at a company in Washington, D.C., came to the U.S. from India in 2009 on a student visa and got his first H-1B in 2013. Since then, his firm has paid to renew the visa a handful of times. Christian requested that The Times not identify his company for privacy reasons. His most recent visa extension is pending. But Christian, who is in touch with many other Indian nationals with work visas, said they were angry when they learned the fees would go up. Workers such as Christian are eligible for permanent residency through sponsorship from their employer. But backlogs have become extremely lengthy for people from certain countries including India, because only 7% of green cards granted each year can go to people of any given nationality. They must continually renew their temporary employment visas until they reach the front of the line, which can take decades. The way Christian sees it, money that could otherwise go into an employee’s pocket is spent on visa processing. “Technically we are not paying the fees, the employer has to pay, but it trickles down to us,” he said. Bolour, the L.A. attorney, says the extra visa expenses have made some clients delay planned expansions to the U.S. He said one business owner, an accountant with operations in Mexico City who wants to set up in Los Angeles, had less than $60,000 in capital. With filing fees costing $3,000, every dollar saved mattered. “In their mind, they are coming to create jobs,” Bolour said. “They see [the extra fees] as a tax, as a surcharge, as something that’s not fair.” For more information, visit us at https://www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com/.

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