Friday, February 5, 2010

USCIS Explains its Current Policy Vis-a-vis United States Employers; Self-petitions by Athletes and Coaches Rendered Questionable

Foreign athletes and coaches seeking to provide services for multiple teams/venues in the United States can have their O or P visas filed through agencies based in the US. In the past, a foreign athlete or coach seeking to avoid going through an agent had the option of incorporating an agency in the United States, and having that company sponsor his/her visa petition and provide an itinerary of services with teams. A recent memorandum by the USCIS may indicate a policy shift that could affect the continued viability of this strategy.

The memo does not directly address filings by agent-petitioners, but rather focuses on filings by petitioners that will employ foreign nationals. Specifically, the memorandum explains the USCIS's interpretation of "United States employer," which is a term that is defined at 8 C.F.R. Sec. 214.2(h)(2)(i)(A). USCIS will determine whether a particular petitioner qualifies as a United States employer on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a number of common law factors. Basically, the touchstone of employment is control over the manner and means by which work is performed. The factors specified in the memo are similar to the factors used by the IRS in determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. USCIS has slyly avoided precedent decisions allowing so called nonimmigrant "self petitions." Under the current interpretation, a proprietor of a business will no longer be able to sponsor himself/herself for an H-1B, L-1 or O-1 visa through the company since there is no true control by the company over the individual.

Notably, the FAQ accompanying the memorandum explicitly states that it "does not change any of the requirements" under the law (emphasis added). Whether the memorandum constitutes a de facto change in the law remains to be seen. As noted above, the memorandum does not address petitions filed by agents. However, the same reasoning as in the memorandum could be used to deny an O-1 self-petition by an athlete or coach that files through his or her own single-person corporation/LLC, on the basis that the agent-petitioner is not legitimately distinct from the visa beneficiary. Even though the law recognizes corporate entities as legally distinct entities with their own privileges and responsibilities (e.g., see the recent Supreme Court decision granting almost unfettered rights to political speech by corporations), the USCIS has essentially ignored this long-held legal tradition in its recent memo.

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