Worldwide ERC 2019 Global Workforce Symposium - An Immigration & Tech Perspective

October 28, 2019

I was still actively practicing immigration law when I first heard about Worldwide ERC’s annual conference. Being too junior to attend myself, I would watch the more senior attorneys prepare their materials and talk excitedly about it… it made me feel like I was missing out on something pretty special. I guess it’s one of those things that stuck with me, like watching everyone else in class enjoy a candy bar while your parents refused to get it for you (“it’s not good for you,” they would say).

I realized last year after launching my immigration tech startup LaborLess that, as the CEO, I didn’t have to ask my parents for permission anymore… I was free to go to whatever conference I wanted!

So you can imagine how excited I was to be able to attend this year’s Worldwide ERC Global Workforce Symposium, for the first time.

Coming from the immigration space, I knew that not every session, presentation and vendor at ERC would be 100% relevant to me - indeed, ERC encompasses the entire mobility process, including not just immigration but also housing, home furnishing, international tax and so on. Since my focus is on immigration, with a specific interest in immigration tech, I came into the conference with the goal of attending as many sessions, seeing as many presentations and talking to as many vendors focused on immigration.

And of course, write about it afterwards :)

So here’s how I’ve broken down my review of the conference:

  1. First I’ll cover the various sessions that touched on the current state of immigration - they were incredibly informative and  interesting.

  2. Next, I’ll dive into the immigration tech I came across during product presentations and at vendor booths.

  3. Finally, I’ll share some thoughts on the event and where I see immigration / mobility tech moving.

Before I jump in, I will say that the opening general session was a blast. ERC’s outgoing president Peggy Smith’s gave an inspiring speech about the future of the organization, comedian Tripp Crosby gave a hilariously fake motivational talk, and finally professional speaker Sekou Andrews closed with an incredible, inspiring and moving spoken word keynote. Here are a few of my (not so great) photos from that session.

 

Ok then. On with the conference overview.

Immigration Sessions

Believe it or not, the conference, which was held at the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston from October 16th through the 18th, actually kicked off before official registration was even open.

Seriously, you were only able to register starting at noon on the 16th, but starting at 8:00AM that day, in the adjacent Sheraton hotel, there were discussion sessions already on the schedule. My first session that day was a forum on immigration, which kicked off at 9:45AM. After a few housekeeping items on the ERC agenda, the speakers jumped right into their discussion.

Government Affairs Forum - Immigration

The first person to speak at length was Azmina Aboobaker, US Immigration Manager at Facebook. Azmina started off with a quote by President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address: “We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens.” The purpose of mentioning this quote, especially against the backdrop of the president’s Buy American, Hire American (BAHA) executive order, was to indicate that, indeed, immigration has been tough the past few years.

Request for evidence (RFE) and denial rates were the first item on the agenda. For L-1 intracompany transferees, Azmina noted a 29% denial rate and 54% RFE rate. And after an RFE, she noted only a 51% approval rate. So if your company uses L-1 visas to move folks around from overseas to the US, set internal expectations based on the reality of these statistics.

For H-1B visas, Azmina reported an approximately 16% denial rate, 40% RFE rate and only 63% approval post-RFE. And what are these RFEs and denials all about? Azmina broke it down into three categories:

  1. Specialty occupation questions, including whether the role truly need a bachelor’s degree.

  2. Employer-employee Relationship, including whether the beneficiary is going to work at a third party location, whether they will be doing “specialized work” for the entirety of their employment and whether there is there sufficient documentation evidencing the employer-employee relationship.

  3. Applicant Qualifications, including greater scrutiny about things like educational evaluations and the 3-for-1 rule, which states that three years of work experience is equal to one year of formal education in the H-1B context.

The next major topic covered was the H-1B pre-registration system. I originally wrote about it, and its potential effects on the LCA, last year, and there are many more articles about it, including some recent ones here and here. So the biggest takeaway here was what to do in light of the registration process for employers:

Screen candidates early. About 3 months earlier since the pre-registration window may open as early as January. So send a note to your HR partners to schedule accordingly.

  • Chat with your immigration lawyer ASAP. Have a discussion with your counsel about how to approach your upcoming H-1B cap applications: (1) Wait to see if a candidate is selected for pre-registration and THEN prepare, or (2) prepare everyone’s application ahead of time.

  • Think about cap-gap. Submitting an application through the pre-registration system, as far as the speaker could tell, will NOT trigger cap-gap.

Finally, after going through US-immigration, we shifted the conversation to Canada. I’ll spare the details since I’m no expert in Canadian immigration, but I will note that the overarching feeling regarding our neighbor to the north was that it has positioned itself as a potentially more desirable destination for high-skilled workers than the US, at least for now.

The second speaker, whose name wasn’t on the original event guide - and I didn’t get a chance to write it down unfortunately - spoke about US immigration policy. Everything from ICE raids and litigation about the F-1 OPT, DACA and the recently announced Public Charge rule to the ongoing discussion within the government about overhauling our immigrant visa system completely and turning it into a points-based system.

In other words, after the previous part of the session, which was practical and backwards-looking, the second speaker gave a forward-looking analysis of what could be.

The third and final speaker was Jurga McCluskey from Deloitte in the UK. She started off by first noting that she’s been seeing more and more countries become increasingly protectionist, making it harder for folks to move around. However, Jurga noted, Singapore, China and Japan have been loosening some of their immigration laws as they’ve really started to feel the increasing age of their workforce.

I found this interesting… and immediately started looking for job openings in Tokyo! (kidding! …Kind of.)

Jurga then talked in detail about the recent movement of people from Venezuela and Syria, the European migration crisis, and of course, the elephant in the room - Brexit. Ultimately it was a super interesting and very insightful discussion, especially for someone who focuses mostly on US immigration.

So much amazing information in the first session, before the official conference even started!  I’ll jump through time a bit now and recap the second immigration-specific session I attended.

Immigration in the Trump Era

This session took place on the second day of the conference - 10/17. I thought, based on the title of this session, that it would be a doomsday panel discussion about the impending collapse of the immigration system and, by extension, the US economy. Ok, maybe not that bad, but I did think this panel was going to be full of gloom.

But in the end I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, the present-day immigration realities were addressed, both from the lawyer and employer points of view, but it was very grounded and ultimately hopeful.

The speakers were Jerry Erickson, president and CEO of Erickson Immigration Group, an immigration law firm based in Arlington, VA (full disclosure, I worked here as an attorney) alongside Mercedes Sperling, Global Benefits & Mobility Manager at Slack. The panel was moderated by Alejandra Zapatero, Director of Client Relations at Erickson Immigration Group.

Overall, it was a very useful session, particularly for the in-house HR/immigration folks in the audience dealing with the confusion of today’s immigration landscape. They actually broken down their discussion in an easy-to-digest format in order of least to greatest “importance,” at least as far as employment immigration is concerned. I’ve mostly followed their order below and shared some of the notes I took.

  • Public Charge Rule. Most recently, several federal judges blocked the public charge rule. This whole mess is still unraveling, but it hasn’t affected employers too much because it’s still in limbo. That said, some questions have come up around whether student loans may trigger a public charge finding.

  • In-person interviews for green cards. The panel noted that the increase in processing time is partly due to everyone queued up to be interviewed. Companies are leaning more on their attorneys to walk interviewees through the process, sometimes even sending employees with attorneys in case they’re super nervous. This has, in some instances, increased cost due to the longer wait time (e.g. by needing to file more H-1B extensions in the meantime, by paying attorneys to escort employees to their interviews, etc.).

  • Social Media vetting. This ruling came out in May 2019, but it became a bigger deal more recently when an admitted Harvard student from Palestine wasn’t let in to the country. Not even because of his social media activity, but because of the activity of his connections. Eventually he was let in (the public pressure helped). Long story short, if you’re traveling to the US, delete your social media apps to be safe, at least until you’re in the country.

  • L-1 Adjudications in Canada. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stopped adjudicating L-1 extensions at the border after CBP claimed they had no jurisdiction over it. And to clarify, “extensions” is used as short-hand. The reality is that it’s not really an extension but rather an applications for readmission for an additional period of L-1 classification. In other words, a brand new application, from their perspective. In any case, this apparently came as a surprise to many.

  • H-4 EAD elimination. This has been in the news for a while. The update here was that now apparently the government is pushing back their review of this to Spring 2020. It’s been ongoing since Spring 2017.

  • H-1B process changes. While some changes are discussed in more detail below, the broader changes first mentioned were targeted site visits for H-1B-dependent employers and the upcoming pre-registration system, which I discussed above. The interesting insight here re: the pre-registration system was that prior USCIS tech launches have not been super successful, and so the panel was skeptical about the given timeline and success of the launch. They noted that many law firms are moving forward with the upcoming H-1B cap season as if there will be no pre-registration system.

  • Increased Fees. Specifically, premium processing fees, dependant spouses on H-4 and L-2 visas now have to get fingerprinted, which costs extra money, and H-1B filing fees may go up based on a 2020 budget proposal recommending a 200% filing fee increase.

  • Increased processing time. Not only has this had an impact on the beneficiaries looking for answers and stability through our immigration system, it’s also added stress to employers who are now waiting even longer for adjudication. It’s also driven more employers to file with premium processing (a 15-day turnaround guarantee for an extra $1,410).

  • No more deference. H-1B extensions used to be a no-brainer. If the person was already approved and three years later they were doing the same job at the same place, the visa was considered easily approvable. Now, the government has instructed adjudicators to look at extensions as brand new petitions, which has invited a ton of scrutiny despite prior approved H-1B visas with the exact same underlying information. 

  • RFE and Denials. The elephant in every room where H-1B visas are being discussed. This panel echoed what the first panel said - denials and RFEs are up across the board, requiring much more detailed H-1B applications from the start. One actionable takeaway was for immigration law firms to create RFE teams as a way to centralize knowledge and processes around dealing with RFEs as they come in.

Whew!

Yes, some of the information, particularly around the H-1B visa, was repeated in both panels. But it was simply that important, and that much on peoples’ minds.

There was a third immigration panel on the 18th, the last day of the conference, called, “Peering Into the Crystal Ball: Immigration Trends and Implications.” But I’ll be honest - I didn’t go to it. It was at 9:00AM that day, and I felt that the first two sessions I attended provided a strong overview of current-day immigration issues as well as what’s to come.

That said, I was feeling some FOMO (fear of missing out for all you non-millennials) so I ended up messaging someone who went to this early morning immigration session. I asked them how it was, and they told me the information presented was substantially the same as the other two immigration sessions. I let out a huge sigh of relief.

If you’re not asleep yet listening to immigration law updates, excellent! It’s time to move on to the exciting stuff - tech!

Immigration Tech

The ERC conference didn’t have a specific focus on technology, but there were a handful of companies and vendors present showcasing their immigration tech, whether as part of a larger service offering or as their entire business.

All of this happened in what was called “The Hangout” - a large hall where all the vendors had their booths, where lunch was served and where the beers came out at 5PM sharp every day. There was also a carveout in this large hall called the “Innovation Lab,” an area with a stage for product demos as well as smaller tables and accompanying screens for companies to set up satellite tables and showcase their products.

I admit that I didn’t talk to everyone - between attending the above sessions, having great conversations and at times stepping away to take a breather and grab a bite to eat, I only spoke to and saw the tech offerings that were either already on my radar or otherwise very clearly immigration-related.

I even had the opportunity to interview some of the teams behind these tech products. Here’s what I found.

 

WRapid. Built by Wolfsdorf Rosenthal LLP, a Los Angeles-based immigration law firm, WRapid is their home-grown immigration management system. I’ve known the firm for a number of years, and as one of the main conference sponsors, they had a booth in the vendor area showcasing their WRapid platform. So I went over to chat with them.

The first thing I asked was, why did they decide to build their own system, and why on the Salesforce platform? “We built WRapid on Salesforce because none of the other systems on the market were meeting our firm’s needs, and more importantly the needs of our clients,” explained Zara Najam, attorney and director of global immigartion at the firm.

“We wanted to be able to keep track of our cases, have robust reporting, and give our employees sufficient access and transparency in terms of case status. We wanted end-to-end processing and be absolutely sure we were compliant with GDPR, California privacy laws and more.”

But why choose Salesforce and not build it from scratch or on top of an existing immigration case management platform, I asked? Najam explained, “we wanted something that we can continue to build on as our clients grow and change. This was the big difference - Salesforce can easily make changes, take suggestions, update the look and feel, etc. It also integrates with other software solutions like Workday for HR folks, allows for easy customization and client branding, and more.”

I had the chance to see a demo, checking out a handful of screens. Indeed, I could tell it was user-friendly by just looking at it. The first thing I noticed was an easy-to-understand case status bar that showed me where each case was in its process. I also saw some of their dynamic dashboards. I asked what cool thing they’ve built with it so far and they mentioned a tool that pulls I-94 data from the Customs and Border Protection website.

Overall, I was impressed with WRapid, especially considering the fact that it’s only internal and not commercialized. I would expect internal tools to be the bare minimum, just enough for the legal work to get done, But the WR team really took the time and effort, and made the investment, to make a seemingly great product for their staff and, by extension, for their clients.

 

Nomadic. I had heard about Nomadic on the first day of the ERC conference, so I made sure to find their booth and talk to their team. They just launched - about a month ago if I understood correctly, and so this was more or less their big unveiling. So what’s Nomadic? According to their website, a “Travel Document Management Program.” 

But what does this mean, exactly? Partly, it’s a pre-trip assessment tool - companies add their roster of employees to Nomadic and, when it’s time for one of them to take an international assignment, whether into the US from abroad or elsewhere around the world, Nomadic assesses what that employee needs and can then either digitally apply for their necessary travel visa or otherwise help facilitate the process.

At the ERC conference I had the opportunity to chat with Jack Stokes, manager at Nomadic and former project manager at Fragomen both in the US and UK.

Something to know about Nomadic is that it’s a spin-off of Fragomen. “We are not a law firm, and we’re a separate legal entity, but we are founded by Fragomen, and we remain closely aligned with them so that any legal underpinning for the pre-trip assessment, like whether a jurisdiction require a work permit, will be based on the law firm knowledge and database.” Stokes told me. “This gives Nomadic the ability to run assessments and assure the individual knows what work visa or other legal documents are needed.”

So what’s makes Nomadic different from, say, a CIBT visa assessment or other similar service provided by the Big Four? Lots, Stokes told me. But I found this particular part to be interesting: “Nomadic creates a traveler profile for ever employees in an organization, even if someone doesn’t have a case Nomadic yet.

“That’s a big differentiator between Nomadic and the others.” Stokes went on to explain that Nomadic’s competitors won’t store information for an employee unless it’s tied back to a matter or case and can be charged back to the client. On the flip side, Nomadic takes as much employee information as possible in advance and so once a travel visa is needed (it’s very often done last minute and everything has to happen yesterday), the process is much faster.

After the pre-trip assessment, Nomadic can automatically make the visa happen or help downstream service providers with documentation if the user decides to go outside the Nomadic ecosystem.

Going forward, Nomadic will look to tie into e-visa systems around the world, like ESTA, wherever possible. For now, this app enables the user to easily book their travel and manage their documents. The company is currently building out more features for their employer to also have a view and book travel on the employee’s behalf. 

Ultimately, I was impressed with Nomadic’s vision and their mobile approach. The fact that they spun off of and remain closely tied to Fragomen is a good sign since they get to leverage Fragomen’s wealth of immigration knowledge and expertise. And as a separate entity, they get the freedom of acting like a startup in all the best ways.

KPMG Link. At the Innovation Lab, KPMG was giving a presentation on their new KPMG Link Go mobile app. According to the Apple App store, KPMG Link Go is a “a new easy to use mobile app providing a personal gateway into the world of mobility services.” Looking at the version history it’s clear that this is a new app - while it was initially released on November 30, 2018, the latest update was on July 31, 2019.

According to their presentation, KPMG Link Go is meant to give the user everything they need to know about their mobility and tax information, including the latest on their case, where they are with specific milestones, when/whether their visa or work permit has arrived and more. Apparently it can also scan important documents such as passports, and uses optical character recognition to read important information off of scanned documents and populate corresponding fields.

The KPMG team also noted that KPMG Link Go also has a virtual assistant as well as artificial intelligence capabilities that process the user’s individual information, and, based on visa processing times, help determine if and when travel can take place, what kind of visa the traveler may need, next steps and more.

While I didn’t get to chat with anyone from the team at length about the app itself, the presentation was interesting and the app screenshots looked appealing and user-friendly. Ultimately, this app, much like Nomadic, focused on pre-travel assessment, visa services and other offerings empowering individual travelers and their employers.

Looking Ahead for Immigration & Mobility Tech

To me, attending the ERC Global Mobility Symposium was something I had been thinking about for years. As you can tell, the real thing didn’t disappoint. From engaging talks and interesting tech demos to successful networking and all-around great people, I really enjoyed my time.

And it got me thinking about the future of technology within immigration and global mobility. Yes, this conference wasn’t specifically focused on tech, but it did seem like everyone was talking about something technology-enabled. Even Airbnb had a swanky booth set up, talking about corporate housing. I didn’t expect to see them there, but it made sense after understanding their view into the mobility market and how technology is slowly affecting every aspect of mobility.

Here were my top takeaways regarding immigration and mobility technology from this particular conference:

  1. Technology is now, more than ever, being built with the end user in mind even when that end user isn’t themselves paying for the app. So all the tech solutions I mentioned above, and a few others I saw that were focused on other parts of the mobility puzzle, all talked about user experience more than anything else.

  2. Companies are starting to think mobile-first, building more apps for use on the go rather than solely at the office.

  3. Law firms are increasingly getting into the tech game. From building robust internal case management tools to spinning off immigration apps as separate companies, immigration law firms are leveraging their expertise to bring tech to market at an increasing rate.

As far as ERC goes, it felt that they are starting to lean more into technology, judging by the number of sessions that had some form of the word “technology” in their name. It was exciting to see, and it felt that it will only increase moving forward.

It’s no secret that vendors tend to be overwhelmingly the same year after year, and this means there isn’t a constant stream of new options of potential service providers for conference-goers. And if not a conference like ERC, where are immigration and HR professionals, global mobility managers and others in the space supposed to go to learn about cutting-edge companies and service providers looking to truly disrupt the space?

I feel confident that moving forward, tech will continue to be front-and-center with organizations like ERC and their big conferences. And I’m excited about it!

If you read this entire article, I sincerely thank you. I’ve had an absolute blast going to conferences and writing about them afterwards. Now I have a two-week break before my next conference - SHRM’s Global Mobility & Immigration Symposium in early November.

Until then… cheers!