Home Visa Immigration Ask Sophie: I work at OpenAI on an H-1B. How can I...

Ask Sophie: I work at OpenAI on an H-1B. How can I explore immigration independence?

Sophie Alcorn, attorney, author and founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley, California, is an award-winning Certified Specialist Attorney in Immigration and Nationality Law by the State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is passionate about transcending borders, expanding opportunity, and connecting the world by practicing compassionate, visionary, and expert immigration law. Connect with Sophie on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Dear Sophie,

I signed the OpenAI letter threatening to leave unless the board resigns. I’m an AI engineer on H-1B. I went through PERM and my EB-3 I-140 got approved. However, my priority date isn’t current yet. If Altman isn’t able to return, how can I stay in the U.S. and start exploring new opportunities at AI startups?

— Emboldened Employee

Editor’s note: This situation is likely resolved with the return of Sam Altman as OpenAI’s CEO. But the column reflects the reality of foreign workers throughout Silicon Valley and the United States, and as such, we feel the advice in the article is worth publishing. Read past columns by Sophie Alcorn here.

Dear Emboldened,

I admire your courage in standing up for what you truly value to sign this letter even though it may have put your ability to remain in the United States at risk. Standing up for your values even when they run counter to your self-interest speaks to the tenacity, grit, and determination of immigrants and the value you add to this country. Especially this Thanksgiving week, I’m thankful to you!

Rest assured, I’ve got your back! The good news is that the Biden administration has signaled its desire and commitment to attract and retain talented AI engineers such as you here in the U.S. What’s more, talented AI engineers are in very high demand by employers across the board, from early-stage startups to the biggest tech companies. Take a look at the Executive Order that President Biden issued in October and this Ask Sophie column.

Let’s dive in to discuss the ways to remain in the U.S. and start exploring new opportunities at AI startups.

Exploring new opportunities

As an AI engineer, you’ve got many options! You could stay at OpenAI for now and find a part-time job at an AI startup on the side. Before you take that step, look at the fine print in your employment contract with an intellectual property attorney to make sure this is an option. You could leave OpenAI and look for a new position at an AI startup, but keep in mind you would only have a 60-day grace period or you would have to get a B-1 business visitor visa. Last year during the tech layoffs, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) clarified that the 60-day grace period can apply even if you leave your job and that you can look for a new role while in B-1/B-2 status.

There’s lots of early-stage pre-seed money available for generative AI startups if you wish to start your own company, even as an immigrant. More than $40 billion in VC funding poured into AI startups during the first six months of 2023, according to PitchBook. Moreover, AI companies have received more than a quarter of the total investments in all startups in the U.S. this year, more than double compared to last year, according to Crunchbase.

Keep in mind that because OpenAI sponsored you for the H-1B specialty occupation visa, you can only work for OpenAI. If you want to work for another startup — or create your own — that startup will need to either transfer your H-1B or sponsor you for another visa. Many folks look to a concurrent H-1B as a source of layoff insurance if they can qualify.