H-1B CAP Season Preview: An Interview with Head Evaluator Howard Borenstein
By: Joseph Catrone
As attorneys and businesses are preparing for the upcoming, annual H-1B lottery and CAP season, they are also bracing themselves for the months of fast-paced, high-volume environments, knowing there’s little room for error, delay, or discrepancy in the process of requesting academic credential evaluations. Fortunately, the team at Park Evaluations is deeply committed and fully equipped to aid in these crucial steps of the H-1B filing process—an attitude reflected first and foremost through the dedication of our head credential evaluator, Howard Borenstein. We asked Howard to share his expertise on academic evaluations, as well as the many insights gained from nearly 20 years in the industry.
What can people expect from Park’s Credential Reports and services?
HB: Certainly, clients have the right to expect that our evaluations will help their case, and not be challenged by USCIS; this goes without saying. As such, we make certain that each of the evaluations we prepare is in accordance with AACRAO EDGE, which USCIS relies on heavily. But of course, that is only part of the story, or else evaluating credentials would be no more complicated than looking at flash cards.
When does it get more complicated?
HB: Believe it or not, AACRAO EDGE does not list every single credential for every country; and moreover, EDGE isn’t always 100% correct. Therefore, very often in fact, evaluating credentials requires significant research—both checking the accreditation of universities, which involves communicating with various Ministries of Education, along with researching the educational programs and systems of different countries. I’ve actually reached out to different EDGE authors for advice, and even challenged them on occasion if I felt their credential advice was mistaken.
And this brings me to the second point I want to make in terms of what clients can expect from us, not just from our evaluations but from us as a company—namely that we consider strongly what the client needs for their petition, and work with them to provide an equivalency that helps move their case forward, or, where appropriate, offer the best possible alternative.
Ultimately, every client should expect transparency and communication from us as well. We understand the urgency and importance of each individual case, and we always keep people apprised of any updates on their requests, and are on call (or email) for any questions or concerns they have, especially during a fast-paced time like CAP season.
What recent trends have you been noticing from USCIS related to candidates’ academic credentials that attorneys and businesses should be aware of?
HB: One of the biggest I’m seeing, and one that I’m sure is frustrating to attorneys, is USCIS challenging academic credentials even though the equivalencies are supported by AACRAO EDGE. The RFE clarifies the specific reason for this challenge, and it is almost always one of two issues: either to prove the institution is regionally accredited; or, much more common, to prove a degree was four years, if the transcripts were incomplete or missing all together. Those are instances where we sometimes have to add additional research, insights, or reference materials to an evaluation, and we’re always prepared for that.
Could you elaborate on why AACRO EDGE is such a valuable resource?
HB: The first and most obvious reason is that USCIS refers to AACRAO EDGE almost as their bible of credential evaluations. As such, it is critical that all of our academic credential evaluations be in accordance with EDGE, or else there is a reasonable chance USCIS will reject it.
But a second, even more important reason, and part of the reason USCIS follows it so closely, is that AACRAO EDGE is actually a very good resource. It is an extremely comprehensive encyclopedic database of the most common academic credentials given in over 100 countries along with the appropriate US equivalent. Moreover, it contains a pretty decent overview of each country’s educational system, with an educational ladder showing the more common educational pathways, along with links to other online and offline resources, some of which lead to accredited institutions for that country, and that country’s Ministry of Education.
What is the downside?
HB: Simply put, nothing is ever truly perfect—no encyclopedia can be 100 percent accurate forever, and EDGE is no exception. And in fact, EDGE will amend their entries without warning, so a degree can have one equivalency one week and not even be considered a credential the next. Anyone who uses it frequently needs to be always on their toes and take nothing for granted. Still, EDGE is certainly an excellent starting point when researching an educational credential, even if occasionally more information becomes necessary.
In terms of requesting an academic evaluation, what kinds of documents should be included from the outset to avoid slowdowns/follow-ups and ensure a smooth process?
HB: I typically look for three things when evaluating academic credentials: i) Something from the client indicating what equivalency they need, in the hopes that we can find a way to accommodate; ii) all of the diplomas; and iii) all of the marksheets or transcripts.
I’ve had many clients ask me why just seeing the transcripts, without a diploma, isn’t good enough. The truth of the matter is the diploma is the only way to know for sure that the candidate received the degree. Even a transcript listing the degree credential the candidate earned is not always enough evidence, especially for USCIS. In the absence of a diploma, a letter from the university’s registrar confirming the degree and date of award is also acceptable.
I also mentioned earlier that immigration will sometimes take issue with incomplete or missing transcripts and challenge whether a bachelor’s program is four years, so this is one reason that providing the full transcripts is important. But beyond that, for some countries the diplomas don’t list the field of study at all, so without the marksheets or transcripts, I have no way to tell what the candidate actually studied. Moreover, without them, I cannot tell if the client’s request in terms of a particular equivalency is defensible—maybe the diploma indicates the candidate was awarded a Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics, but the client is asking for a Computer Science degree, and the transcripts may indicate such a high concentration of computer-related coursework that a Computer Science degree is warranted. So, it is important for us to have as much information as can be provided so that we can issue the most accurate and authoritative credential evaluations possible.
What are some things you have learned from CAP seasons over the years?
HB: The one thing I have learned from well over a dozen cap seasons is that they are always busy and always unpredictable. Some clients prefer to get run-of-the-mill, standard evaluations, and prefer to deal with any RFE issues later, while other clients want to get a “kitchen sink” expert letter evaluation answering many different issues preliminarily to forestall any possible USCIS objections later on. It depends on the spectrum of “risk aversion” of each individual client, and certainly there are arguments to be made for both approaches. That is why at Park we’re prepared for either scenario.
Additionally, I have found that, especially with the new system of only cases that get chosen in the lottery requiring evaluations, there is absolutely no way for a client, let alone us as an evaluation company, to predict the number of cases or the types of cases we are going to get. Fortunately, we place equal importance on our expert opinion letters, so if an attorney does want to try and preempt an RFE and get a position letter or integrated report during CAP season, our team of experts is ready for that.
What are you looking forward to in the coming months?
HB: I do feel some optimism for the new administration. We appear to be on the cusp of, dare I say, having an actual immigration policy that enforces the law, but also adds in elements of decency and compassion. Of course, the big question is, will this filter down to the granular level of CAP season and RFEs? It is well known that the H-1B is the engine of scientific progress; 50% of all PHDs in the US are foreign born, and we need this talent to boost our efforts in defeating COVID and pushing through other scientific efforts, so I am really hopeful for this. Based on some of President Biden’s recent announcements, there may actually be an injection of some sanity into the business immigration process, which will hopefully lead to more people filing evaluations, and, in turn, more petitions getting approved—and, not to mention, a nice, busy CAP season, which is always exciting. Like all things government related, we will just have to wait and see. But whatever happens, and whatever our clients end up needing, all of us at Park are prepared.
To request an academic credentials evaluation, email [email protected].