Jan 16 2014

Another trip to renew my US work visa, another occasion I'm told I might not be able to return to the country where my work, friends, apartment and possessions are. Here we'll understand some important issues related to non-immigrant work in the US, and some pragmatic suggestions for workers and companies to address them.

It's hard to ignore how lucky we are to be able to work legally in the US in first place. Many of us had to literally win a lottery, as the USCIS picks petitions at random once they reach a certain cap.

But six years later this feeling of privilege has turned into a chore:

  • A misinformed US consular officer told me I wouldn't be able to renew my visa, and got irritated when I kindly explained her why I should be allowed to.
  • Another US consular officer told me my application was at risk because I didn't bring an employment verification letter. They wouldn't take paychecks or my business card because "these are easily forgeable", ironic considering I later printed this letter at home, and it has a low resolution signature of someone I've never met.
  • This other time I tried to avoid the 14-hour flight home to renew the visa by going to Mexico. Consular officers there were unprepared, my visa was delayed, and in the end I was basically lucky things worked out without having to reschedule my flight (or fly back home).
  • I've lost the opportunity to speak at two conferences overseas because I wouldn't be able to return to the US without renewing the visa.
  • I once went through all the process to renew a visa (international travel, 2h in lines, plus $200) and got a new visa valid for only 9 months, which is when my work petition was going to expire.

Granted, a lot of this frustration could have been avoided if I was better prepared. In particular these are some of the lessons that could help other non-immigrant workers:

  • Prefer to renew US work visas in your home country. A lot of people reported a smooth renewal in Mexico, but the risk doesn't seem to be worth it.
  • Establish a connection with your immigration lawyer, don't be afraid to ask questions.
  • Put work visa, petition, passport and i94 expiration dates in your calendar, plan for international trips accordingly.
  • Keep in mind H-1B visas expire before the corresponding work petition. Try to get your petition renewed before the visa, or you might get a ridiculously short visa like I did.
  • Know about your visa status, and how to maintain it.
  • Carefully read the requirements to obtain or renew a visa. Note that the items listed at the US Department of State site can be different than the ones listed by your local US consulate or visa interview service.
  • Get informed! Needless to say it's your responsibility to understand the terms and duties related to your non-immigrant worker status.

But recruiters and HR are the ones most capable of improving this process:

  • Understand your hiring alternatives and visa schedules before engaging with a candidate that cannot work in the US. Hiring managers at Heroku are pretty familiar with the different visas we can sponsor, and how long the process might take. We've had cases where it would take 18 months before we could work together;¬†with this kind of information we could make better decisions and set expectations accordingly.
  • Get informed about the basics of non-immigrant work in the US, and make sure candidates are aware of these as they move through the hiring process. Some of the things I'll usually cover: they must have a bachelor degree or equivalent, spouses can't work in the US (unless they can also get a visa sponsor), H-1B holders are expected to pay similar taxes as any US citizen, etc.
  • While in there also make sure the candidate is familiar with the basics on income and taxation in the US: how much (roughly) they should expect to pay in taxes, how much of the $5000 relocation bonus they're actually going to receive after taxes, average rental prices, where they can research more about these, etc.
  • In my experience, the single most important thing is to work with good immigration lawyers. Mediocre lawyers confused me, made me waste time, left questions unanswered for weeks... Great lawyers on the other hand really helped me get ready for my visa interview, delivered me a package with everything I needed to drop at the consulate, got in touch to remind me of important deadlines, gave me a nice summary of the immigration process, and more.

Please keep in mind I'm not an immigration lawyer, and that these reflect my experience as a Brazilian working in the US with a H-1B visa. While I suspect that most of these apply to different nationalities and visa categories, you should always do your own research and talk to your immigration lawyers.

Applying these lessons and working with my company to give better visibility into how we're doing on this front has definitely improved my life as a non-immigrant worker in the US. Hope this can help you, too!

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