Government shutdown may disrupt business travel, H-1B visas

Shutdown would complicate, if not curtail, the visa process for people coming to the U.S. on business

WASHINGTON -- A federal government shutdown could disrupt business travel for people who need visas to enter the U.S., including those who use H-1B visas.

And employers who use the E-Verify program to check the immigration status of job applicants may be out of luck as well.

But the full impact of a government shutdown, should it happen, probably won't be known until it happens. Some parts of the government's immigration system may continue to turn but with as much effect as spinning wheels on overturned cars.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), for example, sends H-1B visa petitions to service centers in California and Vermont. Those centers are expected to continue to operate, because the majority of USCIS operations are funded through fees they collect and therefore are not susceptible to a lapse in operation, say people familiar with their situation.

But continued operation of the H-1B processing centers through a shutdown doesn't mean that the visas will be readily available, particularly if the visa requires action by the U.S. Department of Labor, which checks to see if applications meet filing requirements related to wages. H-1B processing may also require the involvement of a U.S. State Department consular office, which will be closed during a shutdown.

At a stakeholder meeting Thursday, the Labor Department told immigration attorneys that the iCert system, used for filing labor condition applications for the H-1B visa, as well as an online application system used for permanent residency, will not be active because they aren't essential services, said Scott Cooper, managing partner in the Troy, Mich., office of corporate immigration law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy. "That will hold up cases," said Cooper.

A shutdown could happen as early as midnight Friday if Congress doesn't agree on a federal budget.

"It is likely that some disruptions could impact pending cases and new cases," said Sarah Hawk, who heads the immigration practice at law firm Fisher & Phillips.

Those most affected may be business travelers seeking visas to attend conferences or meetings here. Visitors from some countries might need a business visitor visa, or B-1, which is relatively simple to get -- but wouldn't be if a shutdown closed consular offices.

"This will definitely impact business," especially for travelers from developing countries that don't participate in the visa waiver program, said Cooper.

The visa waiver program allows travelers coming to the U.S. for tourism or business for 90 days or less from qualified countries to enter the country without a visa if they meet certain requirements, according to the State Department. Currently 35 countries participate in the visa waiver program. Most of those countries are in Europe; China and India are not on the list.

On April 1, the U.S. began accepting H-1B visa petitions for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Sometime Friday afternoon, the USCIS is expected to report on the number of visa petitions it has received since it began accepting them.

Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), said people have been scrambling to file H-1B petitions before the potential government shutdown. She added that members appear to be filing more petitions this year than they have in the past couple of years.

Demand for H-1B visas seems to be "an early indicator on the economy as a whole," she said, so an increase in demand could be a positive sign.

For example, prior to the recession, Williams said, AILA members "saw a slowdown in employment-based petitions before the rest of the economy started to tank."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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