For many foreign nationals looking to work in the U.S., the L-1 visa program offers numerous benefits. You can apply for the L-1 visa and enter the U.S. at any time, as compared to visas that are tied to the fiscal year like the H-1B. Also, spouses and children of L-1 visa holders may enter the U.S. and obtain authorization to work. Lastly, L-1 visa holders can benefit from "dual intent," meaning that a worker entering the U.S. as an L-1 can simultaneously pursue U.S. permanent residence without first having to return to his or her home country.
Recognizing these substantial benefits, the U.S. Congress instituted fairly high requirements to qualify for an L-1 visa. Let us look at these requirements and see whether you might qualify. (See our L-1 overview article for the broader general requirements.)
The L-1 program was put into place to enable U.S. companies that have an affiliated company or organization abroad to easily transfer key personnel to their U.S. operations. The law requires that the U.S. and foreign entities must have a “qualifying relationship” before an employee can be transferred to the U.S. under the L-1 visa.
U.S. immigration law is quite specific about the definition of a qualifying relationship. The U.S. company or organization must be a subsidiary, parent, branch, or affiliate of the entity abroad. The two entities must have a high degree of common ownership and control. For example, a multinational computer and mobile phone designer headquartered in Cupertino, California, can likely show a qualifying relationship with manufacturing facilities owned by the California company in China. Similarly, a multinational banking firm based in Hong Kong will likely be able to show a qualifying relationship with a subsidiary investment firm in the United States.
Proving to immigration officials that a qualifying relationship exists between a U.S. and foreign entity can be more difficult than it sounds. Your employer will have to submit copies of corporate records, financial reports, stock ownership records, organizational hierarchy charts, tax filings, and other similar documents establishing the qualifying relationship. In many cases, the employer might not have these documents or might have a corporate structure unique to its home country. Your employer should contact an immigration attorney for assistance in establishing a qualifying relationship during the application process.
The law also requires that an employee seeking transfer to a U.S. entity as an L-1 worker must have been employed by an affiliate, subsidiary, branch, or parent entity abroad for at least one year. To meet this requirement, you must be able to show U.S. immigration that you performed actual work for the non-U.S. entity in exchange for compensation. You must be able to show documents and other evidence concretely proving at least one year of employment.
Such evidence can include pay statements from your foreign employer, bank statements showing salary deposits, a detailed description of your position abroad, letters of support from supervisors, clients, or customers, and other similar materials. Check with an immigration attorney if you have questions on proving your one year of employment abroad.
Having a year of employment with a qualifying entity abroad is not enough; you must also show that your work abroad was either in a managerial or executive capacity, or in a role requiring “specialized knowledge” of the company or organization.
Although the L-1 program was enacted to ease the transfer of personnel between U.S. companies and their affiliated entities abroad, the U.S. government also limited the L-1 to “key personnel” of the U.S. and foreign entities. The law classifies such key personnel into two categories: the L-1A, Managerial or Executive worker, and the L-1B, Specialized Knowledge worker. Let us look at the requirements behind the L-1A and L-1B.
Under the L-1A requirement, an employee seeking to transfer to the U.S. as an L-1 must have been employed by a qualifying entity abroad in either a managerial or executive capacity. The law narrowly defines who can be considered an L-1A manager or executive.
An L-1A Manager must show that she supervises other professional-level employees, typically those who have Bachelor’s degrees or higher, or that she directs the operations of a department or division in the company. For example, a low-level line manager overseeing workers on an assembly line would likely not qualify, but a high-level manager in charge of the factory department likely would qualify. An L-1A Manager can also qualify if she is in charge of a critical function of the company, such as financial compliance or company sales.
An L-1A Executive, on the other hand, is an employee who is a high-ranking officer or administrator with the company. Executives generally have latitude to make important decisions for the company, with little oversight. Examples of an L-1A executive include chief executive officers, presidents, and the like.
Alternatively, you can seek admission to the U.S. as an L-1B specialized knowledge worker. You must be able to show that you worked in a specialized knowledge capacity abroad for at least one year. The term “specialized knowledge” has specific legal significance in U.S. immigration law.
Specialized knowledge is knowledge of an organization’s products, services, research, management, equipment, techniques, or other interests, which is not easily learned or acquired outside of the organization. While the law does not require it, knowledge of a company’s proprietary technologies or methods is an excellent example of what is considered “specialized knowledge.” In essence, specialized knowledge is closely guarded, critical information about a company’s or organization’s inner workings that cannot be easily learned without actually having been employed by the company or organization for a long period.
Proving that you have worked in a specialized knowledge capacity can be difficult. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, has increased its scrutiny of specialized knowledge L-1B applicants in the last few years.
Evidence of specialized knowledge can include a letter from your foreign employer detailing what techniques, methods, proprietary technologies, or other closely guarded information you learned while employed abroad. If you created in-house or proprietary technologies or methods used by your employer abroad, you can submit documentation of your work. If you sought patents or trademarks for products or other items you developed, you can submit copies of the patent or trademark applications showing your name. Any evidence you submit should demonstrate to U.S. immigration officials that you possess knowledge that is not easily acquired outside of employment with your company or organization and is not readily learnable by workers in the U.S. job market.
Establishing that you qualify for either L-1A or L-1B classification can be arduous. Contact an immigration attorney if you require assistance in applying for an L-1 visa.