The answer is: “not very.” The immigration system is designed to protect American workers, and U.S. employers are expected to hire Americans first. Foreign workers need specific work permission, and we frequently hear people refer to the term “work visa.” But actually there are three types of documents for work approval: a nonimmigrant visa, a green card, or a generalized work permit. So what is the difference between these?
The nonimmigrant visa allows the noncitizen to enter the U.S. and take up work for one specific petitioning U.S. employer or agent. The work is for a temporary period of time, up to five years depending on the category of work. These temporary visas are only granted for narrow categories of occupations: those requiring bachelor’s degrees or higher, annual seasonal work, transfers from international companies, journalists, international athletes and performers, sustained national achievement/ability, cultural merit, investors/traders, and various others. Some categories require the U.S. employer to advertise and try to find American workers first, and some require a fair market wage to be paid. Most general occupations are not covered by these temporary visas, and many do not allow self-employment.
A labor green card allows the noncitizen to live permanently in the U.S. (lawful permanent residency) in order to work for one specific petitioning employer. Some categories allow for self-employment. Labor green cards cover most types of occupations. However, most of the categories first require the U.S. employer to prove they couldn’t find an American worker—the employer must advertise and interview all qualified candidates. Labor green cards are very possible for specialized industries with historic shortages (such as STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Science), or work requiring exceptional/outstanding ability, an advanced degree, or transfer of a specialized employee or an executive/manager from an international company. There can be waits for the green card of up to several years, and during that waiting time the foreign employee must be granted a separate Nonimmigrant Visa (see above) to work in the U.S. temporarily.
For a person already in the United States, work permits are granted when that person applies for some type of immigration benefit. There are no stand-alone work permits; the foreign worker must already be applying for some type of immigration case, such as asylum, cancellation of removal, adjustment of status, TPS (Temporary Protected Status), and other more obscure types of cases. Work permits are issued for 1-2 year periods and are valid to work for any U.S. employer, in any occupation. However, they cannot be used for travel and will not get a person across the U.S. border—that can only be done with a temporary nonimmigrant visa (see above).
Many U.S. employers come to us with an ideal worker who’s not an American citizen or lawful permanent resident, wanting to comply with immigration law. However, there are some hoops to jump through, and most of these cases require investment in time and money to bring a foreign worker to the U.S.
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