Things I learned as an immigrant designer
I'm sharing what I learned in the process. This is not legal advice about how to get a visa.
Immigration can make working in design or development a lot more stressful. In the US, there are generally two work visa categories: temporary and permanent workers. Some designers and developers start in one category and end in the other. Others may be able to get permanent worker visas. Temporary work visas, like the H1-B, have time limits, and in some cases, have a limit to how many can be awarded a year and requirements like having a master’s degree or higher from a US institution. A fairly common one is the OPT (Optional Practical Training), which typically starts around or after completing a degree program and requires students to get a job in the area they studied to continue their education. It does not, however, require the employer to hire you after the first year. Permanent worker visas also have their own set of restrictions and sometimes have more requirements to prove that a foreign worker has the qualifications to be a permanent worker.
Additionally, there’s so much cognitive load, extra worrying, and huge life-changing worry that exists when they're to work as an immigrant. There’s so much that can go wrong in the scary and jarring process and it’s almost like you’re punished if you don’t have the privilege to have things in place throughout the process. It absolutely breaks my heart that it's not an option for so many people. Even with privilege it still takes work.
Here’s a few things I learned.
Be patient, be prepared
No matter what the immigration process is, in a lot of cases, it takes time, a lot of time. Sometimes it can take years. In some rare cases, it could take months. Get a sense from your lawyer and employer about their estimates on the timeline of the process moving forward. Come up with a plan for if it doesn’t work out. With caps on some visas, you may not be awarded a visa. Or the company backs out, or you get laid off. Work with lawyers ahead of time to find out what your opens are and plan ahead, so you’re not waiting for something to go wrong with the process. If you’re the company making the hire, know that it takes time, check in with your teams on their timeline, and stay communicative with the potential hire.
Understand the financials
Seeking immigration is a pretty expensive thing for both the immigrant and the companies that sponsor them. Immigrants may accrue costs for applications, biometrics, legal fees, passport photos, photocopies, notaries, transportation to interview(s) costs, and, in some cases, vaccinations and medical exams. Companies may accrue legal fees, costs related to government compliance requirements, notaries, photocopies, and more. It isn't cheap for any party involved. It's important to have a plan for your financials if you're a part of the immigration process. If you're the applicant, save as much as you can, and if able, ask what fees and costs you and your potential employer may accrue. It's also important to understand that it takes time for companies who may have never hired an immigrant before, to understand how to navigate the process and see if it is financially feasible to hire you. If you're the company, budgeting immigration fees into quarterly and yearly budgets can be a huge help for current and future hires.
Writing and speaking helps
As much as you can, write and speak about your work or areas of design you’re really interested in. It could include tutorials you put together about a plugin you made for Figma to writing for a design magazine. If you have opportunities to speak at a conference or submit conference talk ideas, go for it. Get on a design or development podcast and talk about the work you're doing in or out of work. Write and share about things you’re learning or experimenting with. Not only can it be helpful from an immigration experience, but help you grow your communication and presentation skills as a designer. It can help you network and be more open to new opportunities to speak, write, or work. You may want to check with your lawyer if you can be compensated by the conference, as some visas may not allow that. As the company sponsoring a worker, it can be beneficial to encourage employees to write and speak about design and development, not just for one worker but also for all. It’s a great way to show what your company is doing from different perspectives. If your budget allows it, having resources for employees to improve or support their writing and speaking, like workshops or time to work on talks and writing, makes their work not just better but provides benefits employees would want.
Keep pay records, screenshots of work, and tax info
For applicants, certain visas require having evidence of contributions you’ve made to the industry, so keeping records of the work you’ve done as a designer is important. I kept them in a folder on Dropbox, organized by project. Some are photos of magazine columns and design awards and screenshots of web design and mobile design work. Others are screenshots of published writing online, design shows I’ve judged, podcasts I’ve hosted or been a guest on, and websites or programs from conferences I’ve spoken at. Always, always digitalize or have copies of your taxes and payslips. For companies, see how you can help applicants get together what they need. Sometimes you may need records of their pay stubs (and more than a few months back at that), an offer letter, or even a job posting with specific details for the application.
Nurture relationships with others in the industry
For applicants, nurturing relationships in design and development is important in general. It’s a good practice, not only for your own benefit but also when you’re in the position to help someone else. It’s important to have people you trust, and that trust you as well. People who may hear of a role that might be perfect for you, or people who may be open to writing a letter of support for certain times of visas. Just be good to others and thank them when they help you out. For employers, its good to check in with other companies you partner with, to see if you can learn anything from their experiences.
Have frank and honest conversations, and ask questions, a lot.
For applicants, it’s crucial to stay in touch and communicative with the company, and even with the lawyers, if possible. Ask a lot of questions, especially regarding changing immigration laws (it can be helpful to follow a few immigration-related accounts on social media like legal firms, government immigration departments, etc.), and your specific scenario. Your birthplace, your citizenship, your place of residency, your previous work experiences, the degree and/or money you may or may not have, and so much more all play into what you can and can’t do and what needs to be done for your process. Ask questions and learn as much as you can. Keep your address up to date.
Be prepared that others may know about your application since some visas require companies to disclose the intent to hire. That part really sucks and it makes you worry that others know things about you that you didn’t consent to. The company might share your potential salary with others at the company.
As an employer, asking questions to lawyers and government agencies helps you stay in compliance. Communicating regularly with potential employees is also really important and helps build trust and keep them at ease. While it may be common for HR to know the intent to hire with a public document stating the name, role, and offered salary of the applicant, they may not know that, and giving them the heads up on what to expect, as they may face questions from other employees can help keep the process moving smoothly.
The best place to get advice on immigration and design and development jobs is from an immigration lawyer or firm, no matter what country you’re planning on going to or what country your business is in. I am not a lawyer. I just wish someone had shared what to expect with me, as a designer. But that’s tough and each situation is different. I also hope that this shows some of the extra pressures immigrants in the tech workforce face—even before sweeping, sudden laws or global crises.