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Updated Jan 12, 2024

How to Hire Immigrant Workers for Your Small Business

Small businesses have a lot to think about when dealing with foreign employees. Here's what you need to know about hiring immigrant workers and finding qualified applicants.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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An immigrant worker is someone who moves to another country with the goal of obtaining permanent residence and employment. Although some people think “illegal” when they hear the term “immigrant,” the U.S. is home to millions of legal immigrants who play a significant role in the economy. In fact, immigrants and their U.S.-born children made up roughly 27 percent of the U.S. population in 2022, according to the Migration Policy Institute. With so many potential immigrant workers in the country, small businesses must know the laws and regulations that govern their employment.

What to know about hiring immigrant workers

Hiring immigrant workers can be beneficial to your organization, but it does come with challenges, especially for small business owners. The laws and regulations surrounding immigrant workers are ever-changing, and small businesses often don’t have dedicated human resources staff to keep up. If this sounds like your business, consider partnering with a top HR outsourcing service to seek guidance on staying compliant.

Below are some aspects of hiring immigrant workers you’ll need to understand.

Immigrant worker visas

Before an immigrant is eligible for employment in the U.S., they need to secure the proper visa. Permanent residents may receive immigrant visas, commonly referred to as green cards. Workers with green cards face very few restrictions in terms of where they can work.

Other types of work visas include EB-1 (priority workers), EB-2 (professionals with advanced degrees or abilities) and EB-3 (skilled and unskilled workers). Each visa type has its own guidelines and restrictions, so it’s essential for each worker to secure the correct one.

Employment eligibility (Form I-9)

U.S. employers are required to verify that each new employee is legally eligible for employment at the time of hire. They are required to keep proof of this eligibility to maintain legal compliance. The document used to prove employment eligibility is Form I-9. On this form, legal workers fall into one of four classes: U.S. citizens, noncitizen nationals, lawful permanent residents, or noncitizens authorized to work.

TipBottom line
If you use highly rated HR software like GoCo, it may have a feature that lets you digitally send I-9 forms to be completed and stored in one secure location for easy compliance. Check out our GoCo review to learn what else it can do for your business.

E-Verify

Small businesses must be aware of E-Verify, a federal system designed to confirm whether job applicants are legally seeking work in the U.S. The system is available for employers across the U.S., but individual states determine requirements for its use. Currently, only nine states require E-Verify for all new hires, but 14 others require it for certain positions, such as public contractors and subcontractors.

While mandatory E-Verify for every new hire across the country is currently just a possibility, the need to validate employment eligibility is more important than ever for small businesses. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) workplace actions against employers nearly quadrupled from 2017 to 2018, and it has continued to rise since then, putting all employers at greater risk of an ICE audit than ever before.

Consequently, proper management of Form I-9, and E-Verify where applicable, is critical for businesses of all sizes. Several technology solutions and third-party services are available to help you automate these processes and maintain audit trails.

FYIDid you know
Your company can be audited at any time. If you've been selected for an ICE audit, you have only three days to provide work authorization documentation.

How to ask new immigrant hires for work authorization proof

It’s important for small businesses, especially those that depend heavily on workers who have legally immigrated, to understand the guidelines around hiring foreign workers and obtaining the necessary authorization. Although asking for the proper work authorization may seem tricky, there are verification forms that simplify the process and outline the documents a prospective employee must provide to prove work authorization.

Every new hire, regardless of whether they are an immigrant, must fill out Form I-9 and present acceptable documents, which are categorized into three lists, that prove their identity and authorization to work. This can include a “List A” document, like a U.S. passport or permanent resident card, or a combination of a “List B” document (e.g., driver’s license, school ID card with a photograph or U.S. military card) and a “List C” document (e.g., Consular Report of Birth Abroad or certificate of birth abroad issued by the U.S. State Department). 

Ask the new hire to present the acceptable documents during the new-employee orientation process.

If a worker doesn’t have authorization, what should you do?

If the worker you want to hire isn’t authorized to work in the U.S., you may be able to help them get authorization — but be warned that it can be an expensive and lengthy process. For example, to get a foreign worker an employment-based green card, you need to go through several steps, like completing the PERM process and obtaining approval of both the I-140 petition and the I-485 application.

Did You Know?Did you know
It often takes years for foreign workers to obtain a green card, but they can apply for other certifications to work in the U.S. in the meantime.

However, a green card is not the only option for authorizing a foreign worker for legal employment in the U.S. Here are a few other certification options you may want to consider while waiting to sponsor a worker’s green card:

  • L-1 visa for intracompany transferees
  • R visa for religious workers
  • P-1 visa for internationally recognized athletes or entertainers
  • O-1 visa for extraordinary workers
  • E-1 and E-2 visas for supervisory, executive or specialized knowledge workers
  • H-1B, E-3 and TN visas for professional workers
  • H-2A and H-2B visas for temporary labor certification for seasonal workers

How to find qualified immigrant workers

The historically tight job market, coupled with the current labor shortage, poses a threat to many small businesses’ hiring opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 9 million jobs are currently available. Without sufficient in-house HR resources, many small businesses could face competitive challenges as they seek to fill and validate the eligibility of the candidates applying for their open positions. However, tools and services are available to help you find the qualified immigrant job candidates you’re seeking.

Follow this five-step process to get started:

1. Educate yourself.

Education on current regulations and processes related to immigrant workers is a crucial first step. Many states provide resources and training for HR managers.

2. Create a detailed job description.

An accurate job description is critical to finding the best applicant for any role, as it outlines the essential functions, responsibilities and skills for the open position. When you create a job description, you get a better idea of the exact type of employee you need to hire. Job descriptions can be especially important for hiring immigrant workers because some worker visas are eligible only for specific types of work.

3. Post on relevant job sites.

Although you can (and should) post your job openings for immigrant workers on standard job sites such as Indeed, Monster and ZipRecruiter, you should also seek out international job sites that specialize in finding foreign workers. For example, you can find qualified immigrant applicants through Careerjet, CEO Worldwide and USponsorMe. Searching a variety of job boards will give you access to a broader pool of skilled immigrant workers to consider.

4. Interview qualified applicants.

When you find a few qualified applicants, move forward with the job interview process. Keep in mind that your candidates may reside in other countries, so you will likely need to conduct virtual interviews and be mindful of geodiversity issues, like differing time zones.

5. Hire and onboard the best candidates.

After you interview the qualified candidates, select the best one and go through the employee hiring and onboarding process. Have the new hire complete their I-9 form and present the proper documents to prove their employment eligibility when they are onboarded.

Jason Fry contributed to this article.

author image
Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Skye Schooley is a dedicated business professional who is especially passionate about human resources and digital marketing. For more than a decade, she has helped clients navigate the employee recruitment and customer acquisition processes, ensuring small business owners have the knowledge they need to succeed and grow their companies. In recent years, Schooley has enjoyed evaluating and comparing HR software and other human resources solutions to help businesses find the tools and services that best suit their needs. With a degree in business communications, she excels at simplifying complicated subjects and interviewing business vendors and entrepreneurs to gain new insights. Her guidance spans various formats, including newsletters, long-form videos and YouTube Shorts, reflecting her commitment to providing valuable expertise in accessible ways.
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