May 15, 2000
In my previous article, I wrote about H-1B visas, an extremely popular visa used to import professional guest workers to work in specialty fields on a short-term basis.
Although many types of professionals qualify for the H-1B visa, in certain circumstances another type of visa would be preferable. One alternative to which many companies turn is the L-1 visa.
The L-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa targeted to intra-company transferees - employees being transferred from a foreign firm to a related firm in the United States. It is a very good choice for qualified employees who eventually intend to immigrate, because it provides a "fast-track" to a green card that many other nonimmigrant visas do not have.
The first requirement of this visa is that the employee have been continuously employed abroad for at least one year of the last three years with a firm that is related (e.g., as a parent, affiliate, or subsidiary) to the U.S. firm to which the applicant is being transferred.
The second requirement is that foreign firm and the U.S. firm have a "qualifying relationship." This means that the two firms are sufficiently connected for the transfer to actually be considered "intra-company." In general, this requirement is satisfied where the U.S. and the foreign firm have common majority ownership or control.
Third, the employee must be coming to work as a "manager," "executive," or "specialized knowledge employee."
A "manager" is someone who directs the organization, a department, or a function of the organization (but is not someone who is merely overseeing the frontline production or service duties of the organization). A good rule of thumb is that a "manager" is someone who is at least two levels up from those who have no management duties.
An "executive" is someone who directs the organization or a major sub-part thereof. Examples include presidents, vice-presidents, chief officers, division directors, and controllers. An "executive" should be someone who has a supervisory function, either over people or functions, and therefore cannot be someone who provides frontline production or service duties.
A "specialized knowledge employee" is an employee who has special knowledge of the employer's products, services, processes, or procedures.
Both "managers" and "executives" may stay in the U.S. for up to seven years. "Specialized knowledge employees" have up to five years.
Frequently, the L-1 visa category will be used by an employee to come to the U.S. to open a new office here (i.e., when the foreign firm does not already have a U.S. presence). In such situations, there are special requirements that must be met. The application must show proof that the new office will actually be a functioning business enterprise, and not merely a formality to gain visa benefits. For example, successful applications will show that a viable business plan has been developed, that office space has been acquired, that bank accounts have been established, that the employee has appropriate experience with the company, that a sufficient amount of capital has been or will be invested, etc. The INS will only grant a visa for one year, after which the employee may extend only by showing that the plans for the new office have been fulfilled.
The first step in applying will be for the firm to send an application to one of the four Regional INS Service Centers that has jurisdiction over the location where the employee will be situated. After the INS Service Center approves the application, the employee may apply at a U.S. Consulate for the visa.
Some firms frequently need to send a large number of employees back and forth. The INS has created a procedure for such cases, allowing for blanket approval of a large number of employees at one time. To qualify for the blanket approval, however, the firm must meet certain tests that show that it is fairly large, and has had a certain amount of L-1 visa usage in the past.
Once a manager or executive obtains the L-1 visa, he or she may also be able to apply for a green card and obtain it with not much more difficulty. This is because the proof needed to obtain the green card is almost identical to that required to obtain the manager/executive L-1. The only additional requirement for the green card is that the U.S. firm be in existence one year. (Unfortunately, "specialized knowledge workers" do not benefit from this.)
The L-1 visa is an excellent choice where the employee meets all the criteria. The requirements may be a bit tougher than for other visas such as the H-1B. However, the benefits to the right employee looking for an avenue to immigrate make this visa a far better option.
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