Despite the oft-repeated phrase, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” I am bravely willing to throw caution to the wind and re-cap this year’s American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) annual conference that ran from June 23rd through the 25th in Las Vegas, Nevada. Both Protima and I attended three days of meetings held at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the Vegas strip where thousands of lawyers swarmed a hotel typically filled with gamblers and partygoers. We did our best to fit in.
United States v. Texas
It seems every year at the AILA conferences an event occurs of major significance in the immigration field. One year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced they were initiating large-scale raids. In 2013, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was repealed allowing (amongst other things) same sex couples to get married and obtain Green Cards based on spousal sponsorship. This year, unfortunately, the big news was not good news. The Supreme Court decision on United States v. Texas came in just as we were walking to the first panel of the day.
It may be more accurate to call it an “Indecision” since it was a four-four split of the justices which means that the lower court’s decision to halt the expansion of DACA and the implementation of DAPA stands. Sadness, disappointment, and even anger could be felt across the room as several speakers focused on this decision; however, learning that government attorneys are considering seeking a new hearing in United States v. Texas on the theory that by the time it is considered there could be a 9th justice in place, left us with a feeling that all may not be lost.
Although not directly related to US immigration, but certainly related to politics and immigration in Europe, another significant event that occurred while at the AILA conference this year was the referendum in Great Britain and Northern Ireland on whether the country should continue to be a member of the European Union (EU), which referendum has been commonly referred to as “Brexit.” In an extremely close decision (52% to 48% overall in the UK), voters in England decided to leave the EU while other parts of the UK (Scotland) chose to remain in the EU. The hullabaloo that followed (including the resignation of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron) was a frequent topic of discussion throughout the conference. Although about more than just immigration, as an immigration attorney, one can’t help but think of the potential consequences England’s departure from the EU would have for countries that have enjoyed open borders and a free-flow of workers for the past decade. Will British citizens need visas to work in and travel to other European countries? What about those already working and living abroad? Will workers from other European countries currently in Britain be grandfathered in and allowed to remain or will they be forced to leave? All these are yet to be answered.
Outlook for the Upcoming Year
William Stock, the incoming AILA National President, made a heartfelt speech to the membership, and discussed his goals for our organization. During his speech he noted how the practice of immigration law has changed since he started in 1993. At that time, if a potential client who did not have a current lawful immigration status walked into his office, he could figure out a path to legalization. It might be difficult and long, but there was almost always a solution to offer. Now, because of the narrowing law, many times consultations end without being able to offer a path. That’s why more and more people enter (or remain) without authorization in his opinion. There seemed to be consensus in the room that he was not alone in this observation.
Among the other members of AILA’s leadership, there was hopeful talk of H1-B reform. While some think discussions in Congress will be started on this topic, no one expected that any legislation would be passed before the elections. They did think that any congressional movement before the elections would be more focused on increased screenings for visa issuance to “try to distinguish between good actors and bad actors.” One thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that they have no idea and do not want to speculate on where the immigration law would go should Donald Trump be elected President of the United States.
Department of State
In addition to the normal summer processing delays at US Embassies/Consulates around the world, unusually slow processing times currently at the US Embassy/Consulates in India were reported. Some wait times are up to 100 days just for cases without any administrative processing issues. The take away? Book appointments early! In an effort to help with the delays, the Indian and US governments have to work together. In order to allow a new US Consulate to open in India, an Indian Consulate would have to open in the US. Talks are underway to open an Indian Consulate in Seattle and a US Consulate in India, possibly in Bangalore.
Department of Labor
The Office for Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC), which runs the PERM labor certification process—required for certain Green Card applications—is being re-organized. This re-organization is expected to affect some processing times. Right now, processing times for PERM adjudications and audits is very low. Fears are that a re-organization could mean an increase to the processing times of these processes as OFLC employees are taken off these adjudications to process other applications now handled by OFLC.
Additional news regarding the PERM process was an update/non-update regarding the proposed PERM regulation changes that are to be released “shortly.” I won’t hold my breath although OFLC maintained that it is committed to getting out the new PERM regulations in the next few months. Also, Department of Labor (DOL) has requested statutory authority that would allow for them to charge fees for both the PERM filings as well as the prevailing wage requests. DOL would need to conduct a fee study to decide what the fees would be. Before any fees could be charged, DOL would publish a notice and comment announcement and let the rulemaking process run its course. Given this, I wouldn’t expect fees to be charged anytime very soon.
Customs and Border Protection
Another new program that was announced in one of the panels at the conference by a representative of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was the EVIS system—an electronic information database for visa holders so that they can input updated biographic information such as new addresses, jobs, and more. In the future it will be required that a visa holder enter their information to get an EVIS number before traveling to the US. A pilot program is planned for November 2016 for Chinese nationals who hold B1/B2 visas.
US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS)
In naturalization news, new Form N-400s are coming soon and will be processed electronically. When first released, only those without attorney representation will be able to use the new electronic filing but it is expected to roll out for all down the road.
Outside the Conference
Great food can be easily found in Las Vegas. Among the amazing places I ate were two restaurants that need to be highlighted. The first is Jaleo, the Spanish tapas-style restaurant led by chef José Andrés. I had eaten at Jaleo’s flagship location in Washington, DC after another AILA conference and when I saw that there was a branch at the Cosmopolitan, I knew I’d have to go. In fact, I went twice. The simplest of dishes turned out to be the most amazing of the multitudes we tried. A shout out to the endive with goat cheese and garlic vinaigrette and citrus and the pan con tomat. How bread with a little oil, garlic, and a smushed tomato could be so utterly amazing is beyond me.
On the other end of the fancy spectrum, the second place I need to highlight is called Lotus of Siam. Found in a run-down strip mall way off the strip, no one would ever think to walk in if they didn’t know about the reputation of this amazing restaurant. When you walk in, however, the place is packed with those in the know. The James Beard Foundation awarded the chef Saipin Chutima for her excellence in Thai cuisine. It is purely the most flavorful and simply yummy food I’ve had. Don’t judge a book by its cover. If you’re ever in Vegas, go there!
Leaving Las Vegas
As the plane took off from Las Vegas, I was exhausted from days full of meetings and seminars. As is the case every year, I come away from the conference having taken away at least a few good tips. This year was no different. As a long time practitioner, it’s good to keep in mind that there is always something new to learn. The regulations and the government’s application of them are frequently changing and we, as lawyers, have to constantly stay on top of these changes. These conferences are the best place to do this. Still, I’m happy to get back to the practice and happy to be leaving Las Vegas.