Immigration Processing Delays Hurt Business

Employers report much longer processing times than government estimates

By Roy Maurer Nov 24, 2014
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The U.S. government “consistently and considerably” underestimates the amount of time it takes employers to navigate immigration processes, according to a new survey report.

The Council for Global Immigration’s 2014 employer metrics survey revealed it takes nearly five times longer for employers to complete the H-1B visa process and nearly 17 times longer to complete the labor certification (PERM) process for employment visas than the government estimates. Inefficient immigration processes coupled with the growing need to obtain visas for foreign talent has resulted in a majority of respondents’ dissatisfaction with the U.S immigration system.

Eighty-six percent of respondents—and 100 percent of large employers with at least 20,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees—reported that the ability to obtain visas in a timely, predictable and flexible manner is critical to their organization’s business objectives, up from 70 percent in 2013. Yet the percentage of employers who agree that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processing times are reasonable and allow them to obtain necessary work authorization in a timely manner ranged from 27 percent (for H-1B visas) to 41 percent (for L-1 visas). Visa availability is another major concern. Only 19 percent of H-1B cap-subject employers agreed that there are enough H-1B visas to meet their workforce needs.

“These findings show that employers need immigration processes that allow them to bring talent on board in a timely manner, provide the flexibility needed for modern business practices and give them the predictability they need for effective planning,” said Lynn Shotwell, executive director at the Council for Global Immigration. “For employers, these findings show that immigration cannot be an afterthought—careful planning and significant investments are required.”

The results of processing delays on workforce planning can add weeks or months to an already complicated process, forcing employers to alter business plans and delay projects.

“Employers planning their workforce needs and crucial, timely projects need to be able to bring employees on board as quickly as possible,” said Shotwell. “When employers face significant and arbitrary processing delays, organizations suffer and the cumulative effect can significantly hamper economic growth.”

The survey sample, fielded in spring 2014, consisted of 222 people from the council’s membership database and 5,000 Society for Human Resource Management members who are HR managers and above. There were 335 responses.

Employers Spend Significant Time, Money on Immigration

Survey respondents said the time burden spent on immigration processes is significantly more than reported government estimates. In addition to the lengthy processing times spent on H-1Bs (13 hours per applicant) and labor certification for EB-2 and EB-3 green cards (21 hours per applicant), the following disparities were reported:

  • EB-1 green card processes for professionals with extraordinary ability take nine times as long as the government estimates.
  • Form I-140 processes for EB-2 and EB-3 green cards take seven times as long.
  • The L-1A visa process for multinational managers and executives takes four times as long.
  • The L-1B process for specialized knowledge positions takes two times as long.
  • Other nonimmigrant visa processes take three times as long.

The survey also revealed that the average employer spent $140,192 on immigration-related fees in 2013. Large organizations (20,000-plus FTEs) spent an average of $315,472. The five employers at the highest end of the scale reported spending between $800,000 and $1,305,733.

Only 35 percent of respondents agreed that USCIS filing fees are reasonable in relation to the services provided.

Due to the complexity of employment-based immigration, most employers opt to hire outside counsel for significant portions of their immigration work and on average spent $210,303 in 2013 for that purpose. Employers with at least 20,000 FTEs spent an average of $506,561.

The average respondent employs eight full-time employees who work on immigration (one for every 1,143 FTE employees) even though relatively few workers require immigration assistance.

For comparison, the average organization listed in the 2014 SHRM Human Capital Benchmarking Survey report employs only one FTE employee to work on benefits and one to work on compensation for every 1,979 employees—almost all of whom require benefits and compensation assistance. Remarkably, outside the U.S., the average survey respondent employs four FTEs to work on immigration, one for every 2,207 FTEs.

Immigration Responsibility Most Commonly Falls to HR

The immigration function is housed in various departments at different organizations but most commonly within the HR department, the survey revealed. Approximately two-thirds of all respondents house their U.S. immigration function within HR, with larger organizations less likely to do so. Forty-nine percent said they house their global (non-U.S.) immigration function within HR, followed by another 36 percent that house it within their global mobility or relocation department.

Sixty-two percent of survey respondents have employees who need visas to work outside the

United States. Of these employers, nearly three-quarters have an internal group with the responsibility to oversee the global (non-U.S.) visa process or to arrange for outside vendors to oversee that process. The same internal group usually also has the responsibility to oversee the U.S. immigration function, and operates in one central location.

Employers Face Multiple Hurdles

Employment-based immigration professionals face a variety of external hurdles to hiring and retaining foreign nationals, according to survey results. “Agency adjudications can be inconsistent, can involve overly burdensome or unnecessary requests for information, and can be delayed for a variety of reasons,” the council said.

The percentage of employers that were satisfied with USCIS processing times ranged from 27 percent for H-1B visas, and 33 percent for I-140 immigrant petitions to 41 percent for L-1 visas.

USCIS frequently issues requests for evidence (RFEs) to employers, requiring petitioners to provide more information and documents. Employers report that RFEs are often arbitrary and ask for information they already provided, according to the council. Just 21 percent of respondents agreed that RFEs generally request necessary information and/or documentation that was not submitted with the initial petition. According to the 2014 Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman’s Annual Report, RFEs are frequently “redundant and unduly burdensome,” and are being issued at a very high rate for H-1B, L-1A, and L-1B visas.

The Department of Labor didn’t escape respondent’s ire either. Only 11 percent agreed that Department of Labor PERM processing times are reasonable to file immigrant petitions in a timely manner, and only 16 percent agreed that the agency’s supervised recruitment process is efficient.

Other frequently cited obstacles to immigration processing include the unpredictability of visa issuance by U.S. embassies and consulates abroad and the unpredictability of visa processes in other countries.

Still more issues that inhibit employers’ ability to hire foreign talent include high filing fees, statutory visa caps, barriers to employees’ bringing family to the U.S., and the inability to obtain work authorization for visa holders’ spouses.

Visa Availability a Pressing Concern

The lack of visa availability in the U.S. is exacerbated by the cap on H-1B visas, which limits to 85,000 the total number of new H-1Bs available to most employers nationwide. For fiscal year 2015, USCIS received approximately 172,500 H-1B cap petitions, more than half of which were subsequently rejected through a random lottery.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

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