Since 2009, site visits from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have been a standard part of compliance verification for the H-1B and L-1 visa programs. While these visits may feel uncomfortable, you can prepare your employees ahead of time to gain peace of mind.
Here are some strategies for ensuring your business is ready when the inspectors arrive.
A “More Targeted Approach”
In the years since site audits were introduced, USCIS has expanded the program in two ways. First, in 2014, it made holders of L-1 visas eligible for inspection as well. Then, in April of this year, the agency announced a “more targeted approach” to site visits.
Neither update changed the overall number of visits USCIS conducts each year (25,000), but the targeting means that a business is more likely to receive a visit if:
- The basic data included in its visa application cannot be verified through public sources.
- It has a high ratio of H-1B workers to non-H-1B workers.
- It petitioned for H-1B employees to work offsite at another company’s or organization’s location (e.g., at a client’s office).
If any of these criteria applies to your business, you are more likely to have a visit from the Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) Directorate, which is the arm of USCIS that carries out inspections.
What to Expect From a USCIS Visit
The USCIS didn’t note in its statement on additional targeting what portion of its 25,000 annual visits will be at companies with the indicators above. Outside the targeted efforts, though, inspections are conducted at random.
It’s important to know, too, that inspections are often unannounced, which means the time to prepare is right now. You are permitted to request that your attorney be present during the inspection, and inspectors will generally respect such requests.
Keep in mind, too, that the inspection is just one part of a longer compliance review process. It may involve an inspector taking photos of your office, interviewing visa holders, interviewing a visa holder’s coworkers and managers, and attempting to verify basic information you included in your application like salary, type of work being done, and years the visa holder has been with the business.
Following the visit, inspectors file a Compliance Review Report with the USCIS, which then makes a final decision about whether you’re compliant.
Here’s a closer look at what you can do now to be ready when the inspector knocks.
Preparing for a Site Visit
Assuming you’re immigration program is compliant, you have nothing to fear from a site inspection. But that doesn’t mean you should wing it. In fact, having a thorough, well-communicated plan is one of the best ways to ensure the inspection goes smoothly and your business is deemed to be in good legal standing.
Here are 9 points to include in your plan:
1. Name a point person for inspections.
This person knows where to take an inspector, who to call when the inspector gets there, how the process works, and what to expect. It’s best to also name an alternate in case the primary is out of the office when an inspector arrives. Make sure everyone in the office knows who these point people are, especially those with reception or front-desk duties. You never know whom the inspector might see first, and it’s better to start the visit smoothly by ensuring that the first impression isn’t one of confusion.
2. Educate visa holders
Every H-1B and L-1 visa holder should understand what inspections are and why they happen. Make sure they’re aware that inspections are completely normal and that they’re empowered to answer the inspector’s questions honestly, but let them know whether you’d prefer them to only speak to the inspector when your attorney is present. Ask your attorney what the right choice is for your company.
3. Keep documentation for every visa application
You already did the work to put this together; go the extra step and ensure that it’s easily retrievable. It’s much easier to hand documentation over to inspectors if you have it in one place, rather than in random email threads.
Pro tip: you may want to run your documentation cache by the lawyer who handles your visa paperwork to ensure you’ve got everything you’ll need.
4. Share the plan with everyone
Because inspectors can interview coworkers and managers as well as visa holders, it’s best to be transparent about what the process is, why it’s happening, and what employees are expected to do (answer questions truthfully). Keeping the process transparent also prevents the inevitable gossip eruption triggered by an inspector’s unannounced arrival.
5. Verify the inspector’s credentials
If you have a receptionist, they should ask for ID and a business card. If there’s any doubt about the inspector’s credentials, the receptionist should call the number provided to verify the inspector’s authority to conduct the review.
6. Call your attorney
Once the point person has greeted the inspector, it’s best to get legal counsel on the phone. Inspectors may reschedule to allow a lawyer to join in person, or your lawyer may decide it is better to participate over the phone. Also, you are permitted to speak with your legal counsel before answering questions.
While an inspector may try to persuade you that the inspection is merely routine and a lawyer’s involvement is not necessary, you should already know whether your legal counsel wants to be notified or present in such situations, follow this instruction, and create a policy that instructs staff accordingly.
7. Document the entire site visit
Make note of the date, time, inspector’s name, contact info, all questions asked, responses given, what you discussed, what the inspector photographed, who was interviewed, and anything else that seems relevant or unusual. Ask the inspector for a business card. Relate all of this to your lawyer for future reference.
8. Accompany the inspector throughout the visit
The point person should stay with the inspector as long as they’re in the building. While inspectors are permitted to interview employees one on one, it’s best to stay with them whenever possible, both to make their visit go smoothly and to make sure you have a thorough picture of how the visit went.
9. Give only copies of requested documents
Never hand over originals. If you’ve stored all relevant documents in one place, creating copies should be quick and painless.
After the Inspection
Finally, remember to breathe. Site inspections can be stressful even if you’ve followed every rule. Take time after a visit to debrief with anyone who interacted with the inspector to get feedback about how it went and what could have gone better. Then use that feedback to update your plan for next time.