Companies Consider the J-1 Visa

Squeezed between the IT labor shortage and the limited number of H1-B visas issued, IT hiring managers are looking for ways to bring in and hire highly skilled foreign nationals. Some are looking at the J-1 visa.

Mention the J-1 visa and you may draw blank stares. Experts Julia Friedheim, director of the office of international programs and services at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., and Washington-based attorney Elizabeth Calderon say companies need to understand how J-1 visas differ from H1-Bs.

1. What is the J-1 visa?

"The J-1 exchange program is used to bring international visitors to the United States for a brief period and for a distinct purpose," Friedheim says. That purpose may include teaching, studying, training, or conducting research. The Department of State oversees the J-1 program.

2. Understand J-1 sponsor duties

J-1 visa holders must be sponsored by a hosting institution, a J-1 designate. "In the J-1 trainee category, the sponsor must provide an appropriate structured program of activities, such as seminars, classroom training, and conferences," Friedheim says. The organization's J-1 program must provide for at least five exchange visitors per year.

3. Train, don't employ

Companies such as Pagoo Inc., a telephony application service provider, in San Francisco, host recent engineering graduates from other countries under the J-1 training category. Such a program may not be designed to recruit for employment. Some experts say the training category of exchange visitors is highly scrutinized because of the potential for employers to use this visa for staffing purposes.

4. Understand visa holders' duties

J-1 exchange visitors have limited permission, if any, to work. "J-1 holders can only engage in the activities permitted in the J-1 document," Friedheim says. Sometimes these visitors may work a limited number of hours for an organization other than the sponsoring organization, Calderon says, who has handled immigration matters for graduate-level IT students and research scholars holding J-1 visas.

5. Obligation to return home

"There is a two-year home-country physical presence requirement for some J-1 holders," Friedheim says. "If applicable, it would prevent a change to an H or L visa, or to permanent residence, until the requirement had been fulfilled or waived."

Calderon advises that in some instances it is possible to apply for a waiver from the two-year residency requirement. "Obtaining a waiver to remain in the United States can be a long and complicated process."

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