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The work permit, or employment authorization document, is a document issued by U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), usually with a validity of one year, and renewable. It allows the holder to legally work at any job, and it is also the document needed to get a social security number and a driver’s license. So, how and when can an immigrant get one?
At the outset, it must be stated that: a work permit is not something that is applied for as an end in itself, but only as an incidental, or side, benefit accompanying a main immigration application that results in the benefit of permanent residence, and only when the immigrant initially appears to qualify to apply for that main application. Sometimes, a potential client will ask us, “I don’t have any immigration papers but I just want to apply for a work permit. Can you help me?” We’d have to politely explain to this person that there is no such thing as “just applying” for a work permit. You must first see if you qualify for some larger main immigration benefit and apply for that benefit before you could get a temporary work permit.
Most immigrants receive a work permit shortly after their main application for “adjustment of status” to permanent residence is filed with USCIS. This is the application that will allow an immigrant already in the U.S. to receive the benefit of permanent residence (green card). However, not every intending immigrant in the U.S. qualifies to file for adjustment of status. There are requirements of who can and when. At the time of filing the adjustment application, the immigrant will either be in-status on some kind of temporary nonimmigrant visa, or out-of-status on that visa or illegal but qualifies under immigration rules to file for adjustment. Since the adjustment application will take four months to a year or more for USCIS to schedule an interview and to decide the case, the person is given the side benefit of a work permit so that they can work and take care of themselves in this country while the adjustment application is pending. The law recognizes in this kind of situation that the immigrant must be given a means to legally work and not just sit there doing nothing. Therefore, a separate application for the work permit, the I-765, is filed with USCIS at the same time the main adjustment of status application is filed.
The work permit card is then usually mailed to the immigrant about a month and half to three months after the applications are filed. This card can be taken to the Social Security Administration office to apply for a new social security number and to the local DMV to apply for a driver’s license. If the adjustment application is ultimately denied — there are numerous grounds on which the immigrant may be denied, or is “inadmissible” to the U.S. — the work permit will also be terminated. If the adjustment application is ultimately approved, then the person’s status becomes a permanent resident or green-card holder, and there will be no need for employment authorization since a green-card holder is entitled to live and work permanently in the U.S.
We stated above regarding the main immigration-benefit application that the immigrant must “initially appear to qualify to apply for that main application.” What this means is that, for example, with an adjustment application, the immigrant must upon initial review appear to qualify to file for adjustment of status. Examples? Well, someone who is still waiting in what we call Stage 2 (has an approved I-130 or I-140 petition, but who is still waiting for a visa number because their priority date is not current yet), is not qualified to file for adjustment yet. Or, someone who is not classified as an immediate relative, but whose visa is out of status, generally will not qualify to file for adjustment. There are other examples. A person like this who applies for adjustment of status will have the application quickly rejected after USCIS personnel has done an initial review of the application package, and so no work permit is given.
So, to obtain a work permit, you must be at the point where you are now qualified to file for some type of application resulting in permanent residence. U.S. immigration law provides many methods for immigrants to receive a green card since there are so many types of immigrants and circumstances (although as a practical matter only a handful of methods are used for the vast majority of immigrants). Some intending immigrants simply do not qualify under any method for a green card due to their being either out of status on their visa, being illegal in this country, or simply do not have enough time or have the right relationship to qualify. We routinely consult with people who, unfortunately leave the consultation with no solution under current law. Such a person cannot get a work permit.
Many immigrants whom we have helped are familiar with receiving their work permits not through the adjustment of status application but through a political asylum application. Political asylum is another type of immigration application eventually leading to permanent residence which gives a work permit as a side benefit. A grant of the asylum application will allow the person to remain (and work) permanently in the U.S. and then apply for permanent residence a year afterward. Under the law, a work permit must be given to the asylum applicant within 90 days. Thus, it was and still is a fast way to obtain a work permit in this country: to just apply for political asylum even if the person came to the U.S. illegally. However, asylum requires that the person must have experienced and does fear genuine persecution in their homeland due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or being a member of a distinctive social group, and the persecution is a genuine verifiable reality in that country. People from countries that are stable or peaceful do not normally qualify for asylum. Yet, many people, such as from Mexico (a country in which the government is not persecuting its citizens for the most part), have been deceived in the past by unscrupulous immigration services, “notarios,” and sometimes lawyers, who promised they could obtain work permits quickly for them, but who did not tell these people that they were applying for political asylum on their behalf. Since the asylum application can take years to be decided by USCIS – sometimes 10 years – the applicant gets a renewed work permit every year and thinks that their immigration status in this country must be legal. Eventually, at the asylum interview, however, these people inevitably cannot prove their asylum case as described in their own asylum applications (many did not even read before signing what was in their applications), and so their asylum case is denied. USCIS then puts these people into removal (deportation) proceedings without exception.
There are other less well-known types of immigration applications for certain groups of immigrants, such as NACARA, TPS, cancellation of removal, application for deferred action, etc., that also allow the applicant to receive a work permit as a side benefit. Some of these, such as TPS (temporary protected status) and deferred action, in fact, do not necessarily lead to permanent residence for the applicant but do involve giving him or her a longer term of stay in the U.S. that does not end on a definite date in the immediate future. These applications are more specialized and are beyond the scope of this article.
It must also be pointed out that there are certain people here on nonimmigrant visas who do work for U.S. companies. For example, H-1, or L-1 visa holders. However, the difference between these people and someone with a work permit is that the person with the work permit can work for any employer and can change to a new job anytime, whereas the person with the H-1 or L-1 visa can only work for that particular employer who petitioned for them on their nonimmigrant visa. If the visa-holder wishes to work for another employer, they have to go through the process of finding a new employer to file a new petition for them in that visa category.