Canadian volunteering in the USA. (When) should I stay and (when) should I go home?
August 23, 2011 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Canadian volunteering in the USA. (When) should I stay and (when) should I go home?

I'm a young Canadian citizen in the states on vacation but volunteering in an area related to my professional degree and career interests. I know you're not allowed to volunteer if you are in the US on vacation (except if it's not career-related, i.e. helping at a soup kitchen), but didn't tell this to the border guard; I said I am on vacation and returning to a job in September at a university, which I could in fact do. The job itself is meh and dead end, however.

Now, the person I was volunteering for quit and management uncertain about whether it will hire someone to replace her. The management will not hire me if they find a more qualified American to do the work (it's possible they will). The management will probably take a while to make decisions, possibly a few months.

I don't know if I should go back to Canada as planned at the end of this month, and I don't know how long I should stay in addition for. I know I can stay in the US for 6 months so I could extend my time as I've only been here for 3 now. This would be costly!

If I do get a job offer, wouldn't I be asked by US customs to know how I learned about the organization, why they picked me, etc. thus exposing the volunteering.

Benefits of staying
- will possibly result in me getting a job
- even if I don't get a job, it's a really high profile organization and who you know matters in the industry a lot. If I stay a little longer perhaps I will build credibility/contacts I can parley into other work.

Drawbacks of staying
- is what I'm doing illegal, and would that jeopardize future attempts at TN Visas or other work permits. I don't have the intention to immigrate to the US.

Benefits of going to Canada on time
- all this unknown is stressful and expensive
- I could look for another job there although I'm not sure where to look.

My question:
What are key career and legal things I should be thinking about to maximize the opportunity I've already had? I'm not sure I've covered all the bases of what to consider, but I sure am stressed and want to reduce that.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (3 answers total)
(This got long. You're anonymous, so here's my assessment)

From the tone of your question I'm worried that you're considering staying in the US and being paid somehow for the "volunteering" that you're doing. That can't happen. It's illegal, very hard to accomplish (for example without a work visa you can't get a SSN, nor can you open a bank account, so they'd have to pay you in cash, under the table, and now the IRS is interested), and will get you in a lot of trouble. The kind of trouble that could get you expelled from the US for at least 10 years if caught and possible jail time if you try to lie your way back in. You would be blacklisted and never ever get a work visa or a green card, ever. So don't do that.

Now let's look for potential problems at the other end of the spectrum (working legally for this employer) for a minute.

In order to work there legally, you'll need to get a work visa1. B1 doesn't fit you, H1B is done for the 2011/2012 period and reopens in April, L's don't fit, E's don't fit, J's don't fit. That leaves TN. Yay, TN, the work visapermit3 especially for Canadians (and Mexicans)! Do you and the employer and the job qualify for a TN?

Is it a US-owned business with at least 50 employees5? Does this job exactly fit one of the professions on this list? Let me tell you what I (and USCIS) mean by exactly: Computer Systems Analyst is on the list, Computer Programmer and Software Developer are not, and in this example you'll have to explain in your visa application why this job is the former and not either of the latter. Is the company willing to sponsor you - ie. attest in a legally binding letter which of your exceptional qualifications they require for this job? [You mentioned that they're not even sure if they're going to hire anyone to replace this person.] Do you have a degree and 2-3 years of related professional experience? If any of the above are issues, then I'm sorry, but you don't qualify for a TN visa yet. Maybe one of the less reputable consulting shops in the US can try to pass you off as an offshore consultant or something, but they usually pay you peanuts and overwork you for the privilege.

I'm going to assume from your question that you're still an undergraduate, so that means no work visa and no US job for you, at least not for a while. They take their visa eligibility requirements very seriously.

So that leaves: how long can you hang out down here before it becomes an issue. When you entered, was your passport stamped? If it was stamped (B2 for example) then you're usually expected to return within a month or the agent will have written in an expected exit date. If it's not stamped (and usually they don't stamp Canadian visitors), then you're right: Canadians are allowed to spend up to six months2 of each 12 month period in the US without any kind of visa. If you stay the full 6 months, you'll have to stay out for the following 6 months before you'll be allowed to visit again. If you do two or three 6 months stays which are exactly 6 months apart, or play games like spending alternating 2 month periods in and out, that will raise lots of red flags. The six month authorization is not supposed to be used for purposes of partial US residency. They will and have revoked that authorization for people who appear to be abusing it (usually foreign spouses who are trying to "live" with their foreign national in the US who can't get their own visa for some reason).

So, you can stay for a few more months if you like, but you're not going to be paid. When you leave, on your way out the American agent will ask you how long you've been in the US and really he's only asking to figure out what your duty-free cutoff is for the trip. They'll ask what you were doing and for goodness sake don't say you were working or "volunteering" - say you were on vacation. Legally, that's what you were doing. Personally, I would say you were staying with friends or a sick relative or enjoying your family's summer mansion in the Hamptons, something like that. Have a benign reason for being in the US for 5.5 months. You can tell them about all of the concerts and comic cons you attended.

All that said, relax. You're allowed to stay, for at least the next few weeks. Be happy about making contacts and building credibility that could lead to possible opportunities in Canada. Even if you stayed in the US for the next year, noone is going to start a search party for you. No SWAT teams will break down your door4. You won't be put on a wanted list or the no-fly list. Noone is going to come looking for you. You won't be arrested at the border. The worst case if you overstay (provided you don't try to illegally work) is that the US border agent will be upset that you overstayed your authorization, and you'll probably be barred from rentry to the US for a year. The Canadian officer at the border won't really care, provided you aren't fleeing a felony conviction - they are concerned with foreigners trying to live/work in Canada without authorization. Only your future US work opportunities are at risk here.

Let me put it this way: the bigger worry is that your provincial health care coverage will lapse because you've been out of the country for too long, and you'll have to stay in Canada for four months in order to reestablish it. But you'll be used to not having health coverage since you won't have any in the US unless you pay for it yourself.

Good luck! (IANAL, etc)

1 Or you can immigrate. Most forms of US immigration take many years. Marrying a US citizen can cut that down to around a year, I think. Nothing else is faster unless you're a refugee fleeing political prosecution or a natural disaster, or unless you're drafted into a pro sports league (in which case US Congress will sometimes literally draft legislation granting you US citizenship).

2 If you're going to stretch it, leave on the day before 6 months, so that you're in the US for six months less a day. Sometimes that extra day is considered over the line and it is not worth the risk.

3 Technically, TN is a permit, not a visa. You get it at the point of entry, not an embassy. One of the many reasons for this is that you're expressly forbidden from participating in US immigration procedures while "on TN status".

4 Pro-tip: don't rob any banks or commit any felonies while here and this is even less likely to happen.

5 I'm simplifying; there's a cap on the % of employees who are foreign nationals working on a visa for the same company, and there are extra restrictions, scrutiny and requirements for companies with fewer than 50 American citizen employees.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:32 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ok, a little more - on reread I see you do have a degree. Do you have enough experience, and is it well related to the potential job? (and does the job fit the visa?) If not, then see above.

If you can stay and get an offer, don't worry about US customs asking how you learned about the job. You can just say you found it in a job search and that's that. Besides, they will be focusing instead on whether you meet the comprehensive visa requirements (again, see above) and won't care about how you convinced your employer to sponsor you.

So I guess it comes down to whether you're willing to give up your September job in order to lobby this company for one. The economy is down in both countries; I'd say the best possibility is if you find a way to continue volunteering remotely (is telecommuting from Canada an option?) while doing the university job. The worst case is that you give up your job, spend months convincing this employer to sponsor you, and then get turned down for the visa. Not the end of the world, but very costly.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:52 PM on August 23, 2011

When you leave, on your way out the American agent will ask you how long you've been in the US

The Canadian agent will ask that. You don't talk to the American agents when leaving America, barring strange and exceptional circumstances.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:44 PM on August 24, 2011

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