The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is an effort coordinated by the Department of State (DOS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to tighten security at U.S. border crossings and airports. Citizens from most countries are already required to possess a valid passport in order to be admitted into the U.S. with the exception of citizens of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Bermuda. As of January 23, 2007, WHTI will require that ALL persons arriving in the U.S. by airplane possess a valid passport. A narrow exception to this rule will exist for U.S. and Canadian Citizens in possession of a special DHS issued travel pass called a NEXUS Air Card and mariners in possession of a U.S. Coast Guard issued “z-card,” also known as a Merchant Mariner Document.
The largest group of persons likely to be affected by this rule will be U.S. citizens, many of whom may be used to flying back to the U.S. from Mexico or Canada and entering after presenting a birth certificate or a driver’s license. After January 23, 2007, the immigration inspectors at the airport will no longer accept the more than 8,000 variations of state and local government documents issued within the U.S. Only the 3 documents listed above will be accepted as proof of citizenship for U.S. citizens.
To minimize the commercial impact of this change, the initial implementation date of January 1 was extended to January 23, 2007. Over the next several months there may be a sharp increase in the number of citizens applying for a U.S. passport as more persons become aware of the WHTI requirement. Any U.S. citizen facing even a remote possibility of foreign travel who is not already in possession of a passport may want to apply for a passport at this time to avoid an even longer processing delay later. Only 25% of U.S. citizens currently have a passport. The DHS has estimated that 31% of U.S. citizens traveling to Canada, 42% traveling to Mexico and 25% traveling to the Caribbean do not possess passports at the present time.
Persons who arrive from abroad at a U.S. airport without the proper documents will be sent to secondary inspection. It can take 6-10 hours, and sometimes longer to complete the secondary inspection process. A U.S. citizen can be admitted after his or her identity and citizenship is confirmed in the available government databases. In limited circumstances, foreign citizens may be granted a document waiver after paying a waiver processing fee. As anyone who has been through the secondary inspection process can confirm, however, it is always better to have the proper documents in hand rather than to rely on the good graces of the immigration inspector.
WHTI DOES NOT YET APPLY TO LAND BORDER CROSSINGS. The soonest WHTI may be applied to land border crossings would be January 1, 2008 under the current proposal. Additional information on WHTI can be found at here. Information on applying for a U.S. passport can be found at travel.state.gov and usps.com.
Labor certification is the process used by most employers seeking to obtain lawful permanent residence for valued employees. This process is completed through the Department of Labor (DOL) and requires the company to confirm an unavailability of U.S. workers who are able, qualified or willing to accept the proposed position. Cases filed on or after March 28, 2005 are processed by the DOL through a web-based process called PERM. Cases filed prior to that date are grandfathered under the pre-PERM law and are currently being processed at Backlog Elimination Centers (BEC) located in Dallas and in Philadelphia. Over the last two years, the BEC has released almost no information regarding the status of pending cases. Recently, however, the BEC offices have implemented a case status information system which is now available at: www.pds.pbls.doleta.gov . This system provides limited information and will only indicate whether a case is in data review, in process, certified, denied, appeal, withdrawn or closed.
The USCIS has a premium processing program for certain types of petitions and applications through which it guarantees a response within 15 calendar days upon the payment of a $1000 processing fee. It has recently amended this program to allow for 15 calendar day processing for immigrant visa petitions filed on Form I-140 under the categories of outstanding researcher, advanced degree professionals (EB-2) and other professional and skilled workers (EB-3). Premium processing is not currently available for immigrant visa cases filed under the categories of extraordinary ability, multinational manager, national interest waiver, religious worker or immigrant investor. This change may be particularly helpful to H-1B holders who may become eligible to obtain a 3 year H-1B extension beyond the 6 year maximum after obtaining an approved immigrant petition. Unfortunately, there is no premium processing for the I-485 adjustment of status application, which is the last step in the permanent residence process and the part of the process subject to the most lengthy delays at this point in time.
Employers who are aware of foreign national employees who may be traveling over the holidays may wish to remind them to be sure to check the validity dates of their passport and visa stamp prior to departing the U.S. Also, employees working on nonimmigrant visas should be sure to check the I-94 card they receive upon their return and prior to departing the airport immigration inspector’s station to confirm that the correct dates have been issued. Every year we are contacted by a handful of foreign workers who must request a new I-94 because the immigration inspector did not update the expiration date on his or her stamp to acknowledge the new year and mistakenly issued an I-94 card with an already expired validity date. In the event an error is found while the employee is still in the immigration inspection area, he or she should politely ask the immigration inspector to make the correction or politely ask to see a supervisor if the inspector refuses.
Employees who plan to apply for a visa stamp at a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad during the holiday season are encouraged to check the post’s website for updates on processing times and procedures to confirm that their travel plan allows for sufficient time to obtain the new visa. Information on consulates worldwide can be found at: www.usembassy.state.gov.