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What Immigration-Related Questions Can You Ask a Job Candidate?

By Camila Laval, J.D. on January 03, 2022 | Last updated on January 13, 2022

In this tight job market, you probably do not want to spend time going through the interviewing and hiring process with a candidate who cannot legally work in the U.S.

Those who do not know much about immigration law may think there is a clear divide between those who can work in the U.S. and those who cannot. In reality, there is a significant gray area comprised of candidates who could work here if they had employment sponsorship, candidates with temporary but otherwise unrestricted employment authorization, and candidates who may only work for a specific type of employer.

Knowing how to navigate the waters with candidates who are not U.S. citizens may help you tap into a market of thousands of potential employees. On the other hand, mishandling these situations may expose you to government investigations and fines.

The Question of Sponsorship

It's best not to assume anything from how a job candidate looks or speaks. A candidate having an accent does not automatically mean that they will need sponsorship to work for you. On the other hand, a candidate who speaks English without an accent may not be authorized to work in the United States.

Since looks can be deceiving, it is a good practice to ask all job candidates if:

  • They are currently eligible to work in the United States
  • They need, or will ever need, sponsorship to work in the U.S.

What Does the Law Say?

The Immigration and Nationality Act's protections against discrimination based on national origin or citizenship status only apply to:

Those candidates do not need employment sponsorship.

If a candidate says they do not need sponsorship, questions should end there, at least until you extend an employment offer. Microsoft learned that lesson the hard way. The company recently agreed to pay a civil penalty of $17,352 to resolve claims that it violated the Immigration and Nationality Act by asking candidates who were lawful permanent residents, refugees, and asylees to go through an assessment of their need for visa sponsorship as part of the hiring process.

How Can You Make Sure Candidates Tell the Truth?

If you want to protect yourself against fines for hiring employees without the proper employment authorization, you should complete a Form I-9 for each employee you hire, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. This form, which must be completed no later than the first day of employment, will have the employee answer questions about their citizenship status and authorization to work in the U.S. It also requires the employer to verify the answers with passports, permanent resident cards, or employment authorization cards.

However, you may not have the candidate complete Form I-9 before they accept your job offer. Thus, if you suspect the candidate is being untruthful about their ability to work or sponsorship needs, you could find yourself in a situation where the only way to find out the truth is to extend them a job offer.

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