No immigrant working in the U.S. can ignore the frenzied debates taking place in Washington, D.C., lately: Will spouses of H-1B visa holders lose authorization to work in the U.S.? Will politicians gut the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that gives international students opportunities to work here before and after they graduate? Who will be the winners and losers if the diversity visa lottery is replaced with a “merit-based” system? What will happen to the estimated 800,000 Dreamers whose legal status the Trump Administration threw into doubt last September, and Congress doesn’t seem willing to clarify very soon?
If you’re applying for jobs, you might hesitate to talk openly about your immigration status in this environment. But while there’s absolutely a need to use discretion, I’d suggest job seekers own their immigrant experiences with pride. Many years ago, I emigrated from Chile to pursue an education, build a career, and ultimately start a business. My company employs five people on similar journeys: two OPTs, one H-1B transfer, one standard H-1B, and one STEM OPT. Immigration issues matter a lot to our team.
To be sure, I’m not a lawyer, and this article is no substitute for qualified legal advice. But as an immigrant and an employer of immigrants, I’ve seen firsthand how valuable a job seeker’s immigration experience can prove in the workforce. If you have an H-1B visa and hope to transfer to a new company, or you’re seeking an employer who will sponsor your OPT visa, here’s how I’d suggest handling the hiring process.
Before You Land An Interview
When you apply for a job, employers are generally not legally permitted to ask about your immigration status or to discriminate on the basis of national origin, among other things. However, organizations do need to verify candidates’ work eligibility after extending a job offer–and you’ll sometimes see employers jump the gun as a result, including a tick-box or drop-down menu to that effect in many online job applications.
If the field isn’t mandatory, leave it blank; if it is, look for “other” and, if you’re especially inclined to, you can write an explanation (e.g., “I am eligible for OPT,” or “I have an H-1B I could transfer.”) Remember that if you have a green card or an approved H-1B, you can mark, “Yes, I am authorized to work in the U.S.”
But there’s really no upside to sharing your immigration status before landing an interview if you can avoid it. Especially at larger employers, the recruiter or resume screener who’s most likely to see your application first will be looking for every possible reason to filter candidates out (even if that means discriminating illegally). If you need an H-1B transfer or OPT sponsorship, they may reason that you’re too much of a hassle.
During The Job Interview
Let’s be real: People sense when you’re not from the U.S. I’m Latina and have an accent. When people ask, “Where are you from?” they’re not wondering which D.C. suburb I live in. Here, too, the letter of the law may not spare you from having to field questions you shouldn’t have to in the first place.
Even so, don’t talk about your immigration status at the beginning of an interview (here are a few pointers on how to deflect queries about off-limits topics). Sell yourself first. Focus on your STEM skills, your internships, your emotional intelligence, that artificial intelligence thesis you wrote–whatever it is that you bring to the table. If you get a positive signal from the decision maker, share your immigrant status near the end of the interview.
Whatever you do, don’t treat your H-1B or OPT status as a negative–wrap your immigration status into your larger story. People know that many immigrants come to this country with little money, no connections, language barriers, little family support, and other disadvantages. Your approach to surmounting those obstacles is valuable experience! You’re willing to take risks and strike out independently. Chances are, being here isn’t something you take for granted, and you’re interviewing because you want to be here and build a legacy. Multigenerational Americans might have good stories, but they can’t tell that one.
You want to work someplace where you can be authentic and bring your whole self to work. You need to test whether prospective employers offer a work culture actually encourages that, so be transparent–just not too soon.
Be Picky–And Proud
Are there trade-offs to revealing your immigrant status too early, or even at all? In some cases, certainly. Employers could turn you down because they don’t want to invest in your H-1B transfer, which can cost several thousand dollars depending on the circumstances. But if the organization doesn’t feel you’re worth that, do you want to work there anyway? Keep in mind that as an H-1B or OPT visa holder, job hopping is stressful and not a good strategy for becoming a permanent resident. You’re looking for a long-term role–and you deserve one.
Maybe you fear that employers will try to negotiate a lower salary based on your immigrant status. Again, you don’t want to work for a company that tries that. Remember that the U.S. has a severe deficit of STEM workers, and international students account for an overwhelming majority of the STEM graduate degrees earned at U.S. universities. The current $60,000 minimum salary for “exempt” H-1B workers isn’t necessarily your market value (consider that figure may increase to $90,000). In 2015, there were roughly 530,000 open computing jobs in the U.S., yet just 60,000 computer science grads.
Anyone who runs a company knows that finding qualified technical talent is challenging. Have some faith in your skill set. (If finding talent was easy, there wouldn’t be a $428 billion global staffing and recruitment industry.)
U.S. immigration policy is broken and unpredictable, but American employers don’t have enough talent, especially in technology. Don’t feel handicapped by your immigration status, and do not let it become a bargaining chip or source of disempowerment in your career search.
Yes, extending your visa for years on end is nerve-wracking, but no, that doesn’t mean you should depreciate your value in the talent market. The investment in sponsorship is not an issue to employers if you’re the right person. Own your background and be proud of the risks you’re taking.
Ximena Hartsock, PhD, is the cofounder and president of Phone2Action.