Switching employers for US E3 visa holders has effectively been barred amid the coronavirus pandemic and lengthy USCIS processing times. Currently reserved for nationals of Australia, the E3 visa allows Australian citizens to work in the United States in a speciality occupation.
The E3 visa route was created as part of a US-Australia free trade agreement (AUSFTA), after new legislation led to the US Immigration and Nationality Act being amended to allow for US citizens to access a reciprocal visa to work in Australia.
The visa route is popular among Australians as it allows spouses to obtain work authorization, plus it is indefinitely renewable in two-year increments – unlike the H1B visa for speciality occupations.
Change of employer
Most E3 extension of stay or change of employer applications tend to take place at a consulate, mainly in Australia, rather than through United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
E3 visa processing at consulates is generally faster and more efficient than applying through USCIS. Under normal circumstances, it’s possible for applicants to fly to Australia to secure a new visa. Premium processing for E3 visas is not available, meaning that it could take months for USCIS to approve an application.
Meanwhile, an application to switch employers through USCIS must be approved before an applicant can start work with a new employer. In the 2019 fiscal year, 5,807 E3 visas were issued by the US Department of State (DoS).
However, USCIS has not disclosed the number of E3 visas issued since 2019, which potentially signals that E3 change of employer applications are extremely rare.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, consular services around the world have suffered severe disruption with very few locations processing routine visas. In Australia, consular services were reduced and then suspended altogether in March 2020 and have yet to return to operating at full-scale.
With travel to Australia currently prohibited, E3 visa holders are forced to apply to extend their visa or switch employers through USCIS. However, the pandemic has added to ever-increasing delays in processing, a problem that stretches all the way back to 2018 when adjudication times started to spike exponentially, from which USCIS has not really recovered.
According to America Immigration Lawyers Associated (AILA), the average case processing time surged by 46% from 2017 to 2019 and 91% since 2014.
Under the circumstances, E3 visa holders are unable to switch employers without an extended delay. The USCIS website states that processing times for postal E3 visa applications range from anywhere between five and seven months.
Although recent legislation was announced to allow for E3 visa applications to be premium processed, it has not yet been implemented.
Employers left waiting
This means that employers are left waiting five to seven months for an application to be approved and allowing a new employee to start work – time that most employers can ill-afford to wait.
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