Hiring Foreign Workers in the U.S.: First Things to Know

Employers' basic legal obligations when hiring noncitizens to work in the U.S.

By , J.D. · Tulane University Law School

If you're recruiting for your business, you'll want to make sure new hires are authorized to work in the United States. (See Legal Pitfalls of Hiring Undocumented Workers.) But how will you know whether a prospective employee has "papers"? Can you ask? Must you ask? If someone you want to hire doesn't have the necessary papers, what can you do? This article will answer those questions, so as to help make sure you don't run afoul of the law when hiring.

Why and How to Ask Prospective Employees About Work Authorization

Regardless of whether you are actively considering hiring foreign workers when you recruit for a position in your company, the U.S. government considers you a prospective employer of foreign workers and gives you a role to play in enforcing immigration laws.

Since 1986, U.S. employers have been required to confirm the work authorization of each new hire at the time of hire and to keep records to show compliance with this rule. The form used for this purpose, Form I-9, can be found at the USCIS website. The USCIS Employer's Handbook provides detailed instructions for completing the form as well as a thorough explanation of your associated legal obligations.

As explained by the Employer's Handbook, jobs attract illegal immigration to the U.S., and the law aims to remove this magnet by compelling employers to make sure new hires fit into one of the following four classes of legal workers:

  • U.S. citizens
  • noncitizen nationals
  • lawful permanent residents, or
  • foreign nationals authorized to work.

You don't actually need to know how each of these categories of legal workers is defined, because the Form I-9 instructions and the Handbook spell out exactly what documents will count to establish employment authorization. They also clearly state that the choice of which documents to present to prove work authorization belongs to the employee.

What's more, an employer's preference for one class of legal worker over another could actually be construed as illegal discrimination. At the same time that the law obliges you to confirm that every new hire is authorized to work, the law prohibits you from discriminating on the basis of national origin or citizenship status.

In fact, if you look at an I-9 form, there's an "Anti-Discrimination Notice," boxed for emphasis. This notice warns employers against specifying which types of work authorizing documents they will accept, even if the reason for the preference is not discriminatory, for example, one type has a future expiration date.

What You Can Do If a Prospective Hire Doesn't Have U.S. Work Authorization

When workers you want to hire don't have the necessary authorization, you might be able to help them get it. Then again, you might not. No standard, general-purpose work authorization exists under immigration law.

Additionally, the rules and procedures for obtaining work authorization for foreign workers can seem formidably complex and difficult, resting as they do on a central underlying tension between the imperative to make needed workers available to U.S. employers and the imperative to protect the wages and working conditions of the existing U.S. workforce.

Sponsor a Prospective Employee for a Green Card

Depending upon the requirements of the job you are trying to fill, the qualifications of the worker you are trying to hire, and the amount of time, money, and effort you are willing to expend, you might be able to sponsor a prospective employee for lawful permanent residence in the U.S. (a "green card"). (See articles concerning Employment-Based Green Card Options.)

As stated above, lawful permanent residents constitute one of the classifications of legal workers in the United States. Theoretically, at least, a green card can be founded on any full-time permanent job, though the labor certification requirements imposed on most jobs and the long waiting times under the yearly quotas make the practical reality a different matter. (For a complete description of the process, see articles concerning Procedures to Sponsor a Worker for a Green Card.)

Temporary Work Visas

Alternatively, immigration law offers a variety of "nonimmigrant," or temporary, visa categories that authorize a variety of specific kinds of employment for certain set periods of time. Sometimes, nonimmigrant status can actually serve more as a stepping stone than as an alternative to the green card, allowing an employer to employ a green card candidate during the typically long time it takes to get approval for permanent residence. (See Nonimmigrant Work Visa as Stepping Stone to a Green Card for a more detailed discussion.)

The work-authorizing nonimmigrant visa categories cover what appears to be a broad variety of types of work, from seasonal laborers (H-2A, H-2B) to illustrious artists, scientists, educators and businessmen (O-1); from specialized knowledge workers (E-1, E-2, L-1B), professionals (H-1B, E-3, TN), and multinational executives (L-1A) to religious workers (R-1), athletes, entertainers, and cultural exchange participants (P-1, P-2, P-3, Q-1). (See Types of Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visas: Who Qualifies? for a complete listing of nonimmigrant visa categories.)

But despite the apparent variety, many jobs will fall through the cracks between the work-authorizing nonimmigrant visa categories, as each category is narrowly defined, imposing specific requirements on both employer and employee.

Get Help From an Immigration Attorney

In the end, whether an employer in the United States can help a prospective employee get U.S. work authorization can be answered only in a particular context, and perhaps, with the help of an experienced immigration attorney.

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