Easier U.S. Work Visas Could Benefit Israeli High-techies

'Obama sees immigration of investors, researchers, high-tech employees as national interest,' says Hila Nattiv, a lawyer in San Francisco. 'This change is very significant for a lot of Israelis.'

Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
An office complex in Silicon Valley.
An office complex in Silicon Valley.Credit: Bloomberg
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert

Proposed changes in American immigration policy that U.S. President Barack Obama announced last month could directly affect tens of thousands of Israelis who are either in the United States or seek to move there.

Although many of the details of the president’s proposal have yet to be worked out, employees of high-tech firms who have been relocated to the United States by their employers are now expected to have much greater flexibility when it comes to employment. In addition, the situation of entrepreneurs, including startup executives, who up to now have had difficulty obtaining American work visas, would now be subject to regulations that will provide them special status and allow them to work in the United States.

Some of the changes, which are expected to come into effect in the coming months, relate to the two most popular types of visas among high-tech workers – the H-1B and the L-1. The H-1B visa is the only type that currently permits companies to recruit workers who are not U.S. citizens and do not have work visas.

The visa process is lengthy and companies are required to apply for them in April for issuance only in October. That means that if a company seeks to hire a non-American employee, the visa procedure requires a six-month wait until the job applicant can start. The number of H-1B visas is also limited, and due to high demand, a lottery is held for them. Unlike previous years in which the prospects of getting a visa were relatively high, last year only 40% of the requests were granted.

The major change announced by Obama involves the spouses of H-1B visa holders, who up to now were not entitled to work in the United States. That has required many high-tech workers to be the sole breadwinner in their households and significantly reduced the attractiveness of the visa for many families. Under the new rule, the spouse of someone obtaining a green card – permanent resident status – would be able to get a work visa.

Obama addressed the subject in noting that spouses of holders of H-1B visas were not contributing to the American economy. Some viewed his comments as a hint that in the future when workers receive their H-1B visas, spouses might immediately qualify for work visas too, which would make them that a much more attractive option.

L-1A visas for senior executives and L-1B visas for non-managerial employees are used by high-tech companies to transfer employees among various states in the United States. It’s a visa granted by virtue of an employee’s specialized knowledge and involves a relatively quick procedure and even provides a work visa for the employee’s spouse. In recent years, however, many companies have run into difficulties obtaining it because it was not clear what such specialized knowledge was. Now Obama is seeking to establish clear criteria and expand the definition – to expand opportunities for startups and other companies that could be expected to create new jobs.

“This visa has become problematic in recent years,” says Hilla Nattiv, a lawyer based in San Francisco who has worked over the past 12 years on obtaining visas for clients. “Similar cases have been dealt with differently and there is no uniformity in the process. Up to now, clear rules have not been established for this procedure and there is also no clear definition of specialized knowledge. Obama’s new directive is to develop clear rules.”

“A large portion of the changes that Obama has talked about are not totally clear yet,” Nattiv acknowledges. “Investors, entrepreneurs and founders of companies would be expected to get some kind of visa if they can show that they have financing of a certain amount. That’s expected to be a temporary visa and at the moment, it is not clear how long it would be issued for and what the precise requirements would be to obtain it. Obama has also directed the immigration service to set new standards for obtaining a green card based on the ‘national interest’ of the United States in the hopes that it would become an option for entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and startup execs.”

One of the main problems encountered by employees who have been relocated by their employers to the United States is a commitment for a job based upon which the visa is issued. The L-1 visa does not permit an employee to leave an initial job in the United States to take a position with another employer in the country. Individuals who find that they are unhappy in their position in the United States or get an offer from another American employer find themselves trapped in a relationship with the firm that had their visa issued. This limitation is not expected to change, but changes are expected in the process of getting permanent residency, a green card, after which workers would no longer be tied to one employer.

Most employees in the high-tech sector begin the process of obtaining a green card a few months after arriving in the United States. It’s a complicated process that can take two years or longer. Obama has now announced an effort to provide a permanent work visa that would be made available to non-American workers before they have completed the green card process. The president is also considering a “premium” route that would expedite the issuing of a green card for a fee.

“This change is very significant for a lot of Israelis,” Nattiv says, “particularly for those who don’t have a Master’s degree and for whom the final stage of the green card process is more lengthy and can take more than two years. Now they will be able to get a work permit in the final stage of this process and not have to wait the full two years. If a premium option is instituted that substantially shortens a process that sometimes takes seven months, that would be a very positive change that had not been anticipated.”

Obama’s plan would promise more liberal procedures for entrepreneurs and startup executives whose status has not been regulated up to now. A considerable number of startup companies have found difficulty operating in the United States and raising capital from investors due to the problems involved in obtaining visas during their company’s initial period of operation.

Obama has announced a plan that would provide an option that would provide a track that would allow entrepreneurs from relatively small companies to get visas. The precise criteria have not yet been set, but they are expected to be released in the coming months.

Two years ago, President Obama signed a bill into law that was to add Israel to the list of countries whose nationals can qualify for E-2 visas for investors and firms that make a substantial investment in the United States and create jobs there. Despite the headlines that the move generated, Israeli business people are still not able to apply for such a visa because the Israeli government has not completed the passage of comparable legislation that would give Americans reciprocal rights in Israel.

“Over the past half year, the Israeli government has taken several important steps to settle the matter, and I hope that the process will be completed shortly because the E-2 can open up a lot of new opportunities,” Nattiv says. “It involves a type of visa that both longstanding companies and new ones can apply for. From the moment that a company gets approval for such a visa, the manager and employees with specialized knowledge at those organizations will also be entitled to an American visa.”

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