Many companies back their foreign-born workers' bids for green cards rather than lose valuable help when a visa expires. They say employees pay them back with unusual loyalty. The sponsorship is a three-step process:

Labor certification can take from a few months to two years, depending on which part of the country is processing the paperwork. After receiving approval on a labor-certification application from a local immigration office, the employer must advertise the position held by the foreign worker and interview all applicants. The company must try to prove to the U.S. Department of Labor that no American citizen or permanent resident has the minimum qualifications to do the job. Most companies write the job description to mirror the employee's rÉsumÉ.

A permanent-visa petition takes a few months. Filed with one of three regional immigration offices (in Laguna Niguel, Calif.; Lincoln, Nebr.; or St. Albans, Vt.), the petition demonstrates that there is a valid job offer, that the worker has the minimum qualifications for the position, and that the company can pay the salary.

Application for permanent residence takes two months to a year. The employer sends a letter stating that the job is still available to the local immigration office, which interviews the employee, verifying that there are no health, moral, or economic reasons to withhold residency.

If filing begins near the expiration date of a valid visa, workers risk being deported when it runs out. However, some visas for skilled workers can be extended for up to six years during the process.

The issues get tricky, so consider consulting an immigration lawyer. Legal and filing fees can run to a few thousand dollars. Some companies foot the whole bill and process all the paperwork; others split the burden with the employee.

-- Phaedra Hise

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For a rundown of the process, consult How to Get a Green Card (Nolo Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1993, $19.95). The guide is written for the immigrant, but it's helpful for employers, too.