The H-1B employees who were originally indicted as co-conspirators in connection with Vision Systems work visa fraud scheme have either plead guilty to reduced charges or had charges dismissed last year. Apparently, these results were in exchange for the H-1B workers cooperating with the investigation and prosecution of their employer.
Most of those who plead guilty did so to a single misdemeanor charge of failing to file a change of address when they moved to a new work location, a USCIS requirement. They were fined $200, according to public records filed in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Iowa. One employee plead guilty to three counts of failing to change his address and was fined $600, but had no condition he cooperate with prosecutors. Another had his charges dismissed entirely, apparently because he agreed to serve as a witness at trial, according to court records.
The eight employees were arrested in 2009 along with their employers on felony charges related to the submission of H-1B and immigrant visa petitions for jobs in Iowa that did not exist. Vision Systems, headquartered in New Jersey, was accused of setting up a shell company called Venturisoft in Iowa, where prevailing wages for tech jobs are lower than in other parts of the country, such as California. Instead of working in Iowa, the H-1B employees allegedly were farmed out to companies throughout the United States without notifying USCIS.
Such practices violate Department of Labor and USCIS regulations and are common among unscrupulous H-1B employers commonly referred to as “body shops.” These body shops lure H-1B employees with the promise of well-paying tech jobs in the United States. When an employee arrives, however, he finds no job exists and he won’t be paid. Instead, he is told to go out and get himself placed with a third-party company and only then would he be paid. If he is not working, he is benched without pay, in violation of the law. The employee often is afraid to confront the employer about the unlawful activity, fearing for his immigration status.
When the government filed criminal charges last year against Vision Systems and its owners, the fact that the H-1B employees were also indicted sent a chill through much of the H-1B worker community. That prosecutors did not pursue the felony conspiracy charges and instead used them as leverage to gain the employees’ cooperation, should serve as some relief to other H-1B workers who are now or have been victims of such unlawful employer practices that jeopardizes immigration status.
(In the authors’ experience, most H-1B workers we’ve encountered do not join or conspire with their employers to participate in unlawful activities: if you are concerned about your own H-1B employer and actions it wants you to do, you should consider a confidential assessment of your situation by an attorney).
The Vision Systems indictments were one of the early cases testing whether criminal charges would stick against employers who violate H-1B regulations. Although federal prosecutors settled last year for guilty pleas from the two Vision Systems owners to reduced charges with no imprisonment, the case still resulted in a criminal conviction. With a successful test run under their belt, prosecutors have since pursued additional employers and obtained convictions with imprisonment. See our blog article on several recent convictions here. If you have been benched, underpaid, or promised a job that didn’t exist, you should consider contacting an attorney to examine potential relief (e.g. payment of wages owed, help with a lawful H-1B transfer) for that situation, and to ensure you are compliant with the law when you take action to improve your situation.