2019 IN REVIEW: Top Global Business Immigration News Stories

By Dan King, Senior Researcher, Newland Chase and Kent O’Neil

In 2019, Newland Chase published 327 alerts, blogs, and weekly roundups of significant immigration news and insights for HR, global mobility, immigration, and business travel professionals. If you’re not already a subscriber, sign up here for our weekly Immigration Insights email newsletter to get all of 2020’s changes conveniently delivered to your inbox once each week.

In case you missed one… here is our summary of the top global immigration changes for 2019. (Spoiler alert: Watch next week for our Look Ahead to 2020.)

UNITED STATES | No Legislative Action on Immigration Reform… But Significant Process Changes

As expected, and like the year before, 2019 saw no major substantive changes to the U.S. immigration system, but Trump administration policies continued to provide a tight environment through executive order and application of current processes. However, that is not to say that there were no significant technical changes to the system. Executive and administrative memoranda were issued on visa overstays, marijuana, asylum fraud, naturalization, financial sponsorship, and public charges.

Like the year before, high rates of denials and requests for evidence continued to plague applicants for H-1B visas. During this year’s H-1B visa lottery (for FY 2020), USCIS reversed the order in which it selects petitions under the "regular" cap and the advanced degree cap. USCIS imposed more demanding standards for what constitutes a "specialty occupation" and for the level of offered pay required to qualify for H-1B.

Announced in December, but coming for the FY 2021 H-1B cap season, companies have a new electronic registration system to complete as part of the process. More information here.

In June, the Department of State updated its visa forms to require most applicants to submit information on their social media accounts. The requirement previously applied only to applicants flagged for additional vetting. See more here.

The year ended still waiting on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to be finally ratified. The House of Representatives had already passed the necessary legislation, and the Senate finally did so in mid-January 2020. President Trump’s signature should follow in the next several days, putting the deal in the books. Even once finalized, provisions regarding business immigration and travel will remain essentially the same as current. 

UNITED KINGDOM | Brexit Now Virtually Certain on January 31, and Other Immigration Changes

Brexit continued to dominate concerns around visas and immigration in the UK last year. However, the year brought us a significant step closer to resolution of the issues.

In the December 2019 United Kingdom general election, the electorate gave Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative party a substantial majority – making it almost a certainty that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be approved by Parliament. In January 2020, the new House of Commons reconvened and passed the bill, and it currently sits with the House of Lords for approval.

For months, we’ve been speculating on deal versus no-deal Brexit; but now we have near certainty that the UK will exit the EU with a withdrawal deal. During the transition period lasting until at least December 31, 2020, immigration and mobility rules between the UK and the EU will not change drastically. Previously announced measures from both the UK and EU regarding visas and immigration status will govern. For in-depth analysis and guidance, visit our Brexit and Immigration: What You Need to Know resource site.

In other significant UK immigration news last year, the Home Office issued stricter document retention rules for sponsors under the points-based system. See details here. Changes published in October included PhD-level occupations were removed from the Tier 2 (General) cap, making hiring foreign PhD holders easier to recruit and hire. A significant number of occupations were also added to the Tier 2 (General) Shortage Occupation List, making them eligible for visas. See more here. Also favorable to employers, a new “Graduate Route” two-year post-study work visa was introduced – similar to the scheme that was scrapped in 2011. More details here.

CANADA | Global Talent Stream Moves Toward Permanency

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau survived a tight reelection fight in November. A new Immigration Minister, Marco Mendicino, was part of a cabinet reshuffling for the new year. Nevertheless, it appears that Canada is continuing along its relatively immigration-friendly path.   

Announced in March, the Canadian government’s 2019 budget included an ongoing allocation to establish the successful Global Skills Strategy and Global Talent Stream as permanent fixtures of the Canadian immigration system. The two-year pilot program was due to expire in June, but the fast-tracked route for Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) visas has proved so popular with corporations and highly-skilled foreign talent that it is likely now permanent. The innovative program has also been popular with local economic development officials who have seen marked business growth and increasing numbers of top talent recruits from abroad – especially in the Canadian tech sectors. For more information, see CANADA-UNITED STATES: Tech, Talent, and Immigration.

In December, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) expanded its ongoing efforts at increased use of biometrics (fingerprints and photos) by expanding the requirements to applications from within Canada for work permits, study permits, and visa extensions. See more here.

CHINA | Significant Year of Changes Designed to Attract Talent

In 2019, CIBTvisas and Newland Chase made an exciting commitment to servicing the global mobility industry in China. Through a unique joint venture with Shanghai Foreign Service Group (China’s leading HR services provider) – CIBTvisas-FSG and Newland Chase-FSG provide complete coverage throughout all of China for both inbound and outbound visas and immigration for corporations operating in the country. For more details on the new joint venture and complete service offerings, visit our joint venture resource page here.

On top of this, it was a significant year of changes in visas and immigration policy in China. China continued to employ immigration policy in its economic plans by numerous changes designed to facilitate recruitment of more foreign talent, primarily in the technology and science sectors. The most significant spate of changes came in twelve new immigration policies introduced in August. Those changes included liberalizing reforms in permanent residency and long-term visa and residence permits. More details here.

AUSTRALIA | New Regional Visas, Changes to Skilled Occupations List and Accredited Sponsorship

In March, changes to the lists of skilled occupations eligible for skilled visas came into effect. Most significantly, 36 occupations were added to the Medium and Long-Term Skilled Shortage List (MLTSSL) – primarily in science-related fields. More information here. In September, the process for review and changes to the list began again for 2020. Interested employers are encouraged to contribute their comments to this annual process. See how here

Also in March, the Minister of Immigration expanded opportunities for employers to receive streamlined processing of sponsorship and visa applications. A new fifth category of “accredited sponsorship” was added for companies that invest at least AUD 50 million that generates local employment in Australia. This should allow more companies to qualify for accredited sponsorship that could not meet the current 75% or 85% Australian workforce profiles. More information here.

November saw the introduction of two new skilled regional visas. The new visas are designed to meet skills shortages in the regional areas of Australia outside the metropolitan centers of Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. The new Subclass 491 Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) Visa replaced the former Subclass 489 visa. This five-year visa includes both state/territory and family sponsorship pathways. The new Subclass 494 Skilled Employer-Sponsored Regional (Provisional) Visa is a five-year visa that largely mirrors the TSS visa, but with regional compliance requirements. More information here and here. Gold Coast and Perth were added as eligible regions under the programs later in the month. See here.

MEXICO | Major Restructuring of the INM Brings Major Delays

The National Immigration Institute (INM) has been undergoing major restructuring – with a new Commissioner and other personnel, department changes, and pressure on limited resources to deal with the ongoing irregular migration from Central America. While there were no major substantive changes to immigration policy, processing delays and increased scrutiny of documents at the border were the norm. More information here and here.

BRAZIL | New Digital Work Card System Introduced

Brazil continued its long-term trend of modernizing its immigration system to respond to increasing globalization. A new digital work card system introduced in September should make it easier and more convenient for companies operating in the country to hire foreign workers. See details here.

SINGAPORE | Tightening of Foreign Worker Quota Rules

Pressure to protect the local labor market continued to lead to tightening of foreign worker quota rules in Singapore in 2019. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) announced in March changes designed to make it harder for companies to employ foreign workers over local workers.

Effective July 1, the Local Qualifying Salary (LQS) increased by SGD 100 per month for companies in all sectors. The increase effectively reduces the number of local employees that can be counted when determining a company’s Work Permit and S Pass quota entitlement – forcing companies to raise local salaries in order to recruit more foreign workers.

Announced for January 2020, the Dependency Ratio Ceiling (DRC) and S Pass Sub-DRC for companies in the services sector is being lowered. The DRC sets the percentage of foreign workers a company can hire. Companies will be forced to either reduce the number of Work Permit and S Pass employees or hire more locals. More information here.  

SWITZERLAND | Nationality Quotas Lifted, New Format Residence Permits

In May, the Swiss Federal Council lifted the residence permit quotas on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals that had been imposed under the safeguards clause of the bilateral Agreement on Free Movement of Persons (AFMP) with the EU. Bulgarian and Romanian nationals may now live and work in Switzerland without work permit approval. The quota on Croatian nationals remains in effect until at least December 2021. See details here.

In November, EU and EFTA citizen holders of L, B, and C permits began receiving their permits in new credit card-like formats – similar to those currently issued to non-EU/EFTA nationals. See more here. While we’re on the subject of L and B permits, be advised that when the new quotas for 2020 were announced in November, they were the same as for 2019. Therefore, the applications may continue to be tight next year – especially at the end of each quarter. More information here.

SAUDI ARABIA | Numerous Changes to Work Visas in 2019

Authorities were busy making visa and immigration changes last year in Saudi Arabia.

Early in the year, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MLSD) made several significant changes to block visa and work visa rules and the “Nitaqat” Saudization system. Block visa validity has returned to two years. A new “compensatory” or “replacement” block visa scheme was launched – allowing qualifying employers in the platinum and green Nitaqat categories to replace employees within six months of leaving. Employee onboarding now counts immediately toward a company’s Nitaqat rating, where previously it took 26 weeks for onboarding to have either a positive or a negative effect on Nitaqat rating. More information here.

Industrial companies received some welcomed news in October when the Saudi government announced that it was waiving expat fees for foreign nationals working in the industrial sector for the next five years. See more here.

November saw some confusion when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs eliminated the Work Visit Visa without prior announcement. We now know that it has been replaced by a new format Business Visa. Details available here. 

With an effective date of January 26, 2020, the government announced that it is canceling the yellow Nitaqat band. Companies currently in this band will move to the red band and be non-compliant unless they improve their rating. Learn more here.

Saudi Arabia continued to move toward opening opportunities for permanent residency in 2019. The government approved a new special residence scheme – similar to green card systems found in other countries. It is obviously aimed at affluent and highly-skilled foreign nationals. Expected within the next five years, this “special privilege” iqama will allow holders to work, sponsor relatives for visas, hire workers, own property and transport, travel without exit/re-entry visas – all without a Saudi sponsor. More information here.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | Five and Ten Year Visas and More Dependent Visas

On March 11, the UAE cabinet approved the regulatory framework for five- and ten-year visas for special talents, investors, entrepreneurs, and outstanding students. Previously, residence visas were capped at a maximum of three years. More information here.

Foreign nationals looking to sponsor spouses and children for visas to accompany them in the UAE received welcomed news in July. The UAE Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship significantly reduced the salary threshold for sponsoring family members for dependent visas from AED 10,000 per month to AED 3,000 plus accommodation. Details available here.

IRELAND | Greater Immigration Opportunities Address Skill Shortages

With a booming economy and increased interest as a potential post-Brexit EU location – Ireland continues to improve immigration opportunities to meet demands. More information here.

Effective April 22, changes to the Critical Skills List of Occupations and the Ineligible List of Occupations significantly expanded the number of occupations eligible for Employment Permits. Many of the changes were in skilled construction trades – an attempt to address skills shortages in Ireland’s booming construction sectors. More information here.

Additional changes to the Critical Skills List of Occupations and the Ineligible List of Occupations were announced with an effective date of January 1 2020 – additional occupation additions in the construction sectors, as well as additions in chefs, nurses, and HGV drivers. Details available here.

Other improvements this year included the abolition in May of the re-entry visa requirement for those holding Irish Residence Permit (IRP) cards and GNIB cards – making it significantly easier for them to travel. More information hereIn addition, spouses and de facto partners of Critical Skills Employment Permit (CSEP) holders received welcomed news in March that they may now work in Ireland without first obtaining an Employment Permit. More information here.

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Newland Chase, a wholly owned subsidiary of CIBT, is the leading global provider of immigration and visa services for corporations and individuals with over 1,700 expert immigration and visa professionals, attorneys and qualified migration consultants located in over 70 offices in 25 countries.

Dan King is a Senior Researcher at Newland Chase. Dan monitors developments in immigration law and processes around the world and provides expert knowledge and research support to the company’s advisory services and immigration specialists. He has been particularly instrumental in keeping companies in the UK and EU abreast of the latest developments and guidance throughout the changing Brexit climate.

This publication is not intended as a substitute for legal advice.  Readers are reminded that immigration laws are subject to change. We are not responsible for any loss arising from reliance on this publication. Please contact Newland Chase should you require any additional clarification or case-specific advice.