Utah is welcoming of refugees and immigrants, but companies are hesitant to build out sponsorship programs. Is this setting us back in terms of innovation?

The why and how of sponsoring employment visas

Utah is welcoming of refugees and immigrants, but companies are hesitant to build out sponsorship programs. Is this setting us back in terms of innovation?

Photo credit: TrueVisa

In a 2021 letter to President Biden, Gov. Spencer Cox wrote about Utah’s welcoming approach to refugees. “Our state was settled by refugees fleeing religious persecution 170 years ago,” Cox wrote, citing Utah’s pioneer history. “Their descendants have a deep understanding of the danger and pain caused by forced migration and an appreciation for the wonderful contributions of refugees in our communities.”

But despite the state’s best intentions, there is work to do. Once refugees and immigrants are welcomed into the Beehive State, they are presented with another problem: the challenge of navigating a broken, outdated work visa system.

As illustrated by Silicon Valley, Utah can only benefit from educated, highly skilled, foreign-born workers with diverse backgrounds looking to build a life in the state. According to the 2022 Silicon Valley Index, foreign-born individuals account for 37.9 percent of the area’s workforce. In comparison, Utah’s foreign-born labor force sat at just 11.2 percent in 2020, according to a report from the Center for Migration Studies.

One reason for this? It’s rare to see a Utah company with an aggressive work visa sponsorship program, but these programs are heavily utilized to bolster Bay Area tech companies. 

Sponsorship opportunities 

“Google and Microsoft’s leaders are Indian foreign nationals that came here on visas,” says Matt Gale, the director of operations at TrueVisa, a digital immigration platform that makes the immigration process straightforward and intuitive for individuals and families. “They went through the whole process and are now leading those companies. They sponsor thousands of people annually on H-1Bs, and it creates a work culture that prioritizes and celebrates diversity and different opinions, which leads to greater innovation. It’s something Utah needs.”

The H-1B is a skilled worker visa that requires a bachelor’s or higher degree in a specialty occupation or its equivalent education, specialized training or recognition of expertise. Very few H-1Bs are doled out via a lottery system. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website states that for FY 2023, only 127,600 registrations were selected out of 483,927. 

“Those who apply will either get selected in the lottery and stay stateside or be transferred to an office outside the country in Canada or the U.K.,” Gale says. “They’ll work there for one year and then transfer back to the U.S. on an L-1A or L-1B visa. If the employer gets the employee on an H-1B or L-1, the next thing to consider is sponsoring their green card.

Gale explains that most skilled workers are participating in the STEM OPT (Optional Practical Training) program instead. If an international student completes a STEM degree on their student visa, eligible students can get up to 12 months of work authorization. They may also apply for a 24-month extension. 

“Utah is more sales-oriented [than the Bay Area], and you don’t get visas for sales professionals. You get visas for software engineers—the Googles, Apples and Amazons of the world,” Gale says. “We do have robust software engineering teams, but we need to bring more of the Bay Area culture to those teams. Maybe we need to be more known for our technical abilities and attracting great technical talent in addition to selling great software.”

"The system desperately needs reform to make it quicker and easier for companies to obtain work visas for talented employees and candidates."

Costs and challenges

According to Joseph Woodbury, founder and CEO of, the company’s first core value is to “hire and develop the best.” To accomplish this, Neighbor is one of few Utah companies that sponsor H-1B, STEM OPT and TN visas. 

“Sponsoring work visas is a competitive advantage for employers like,” Woodbury says. “It provides access to a broader talent pool of extremely accomplished and driven individuals. It also brings diverse perspectives into your company that drive strategic decision-making and foster a global perspective.”

Sponsoring work visas also provides significant benefits to talented immigrant workers striving to gain access to the largest economy in the world and participate in developing companies that will redefine the future, Woodbury explains.

“The United States needs to work quickly to dramatically expand the number of educated immigrant workers it allows into the country,” he continues. “Making immigration easier will be a major benefit to the U.S. economy.” 

According to Woodbury, the average cost to sponsor an employee is $5,000, including premium processing. He says working with immigration law firms has helped make the process simple.

The biggest challenge Woodbury has encountered with sponsoring work visas? The United States government.  “The application process for an employee looking to transfer from temporary sponsorship to permanent residency is a tedious and entirely outdated system,” he says. “We have an employee that has gone through the lottery system for four years with a preferred ‘Master’s Cap’ lottery position and has still not been selected. For some reason, the U.S. government doesn’t want some of the most talented individuals in the world to stay in the country.”

Woodbury says the other main barriers are the filing costs, legal costs, the time to file and the requirement to publicly post documents. 

“It’s absolutely worth the cost, but it is understandable why more companies don’t embrace it given the hurdles that have been set up,” Woodbury says. “The system desperately needs reform to make it quicker and easier for companies to obtain work visas for talented employees and candidates.”

Regardless, Neighbor has sponsored numerous employees for roles in software engineering, data and analytics, marketing and sales. In every instance, Woodbury says, it has been a net positive experience. He hopes business owners will speak to elected officials about streamlining the process for employers to obtain skilled worker visas and making it easier for talented individuals to contribute to our economy. 

As one of the largest technology employers in Utah, Zions Bancorporation employs skilled technology workers from around the globe. The company currently provides immigration sponsorship for over 100 employees who are on H-1B status. This represents approximately one percent of Zions Bancorporation’s current employee population, according to HR Compliance Analyst Stephen Allred.

If a business is experiencing unusual difficulty hiring highly-skilled talent and is considering immigration sponsorship for the first time, Allred offers this advice: contact an experienced in-house immigration consultant and use your professional network to identify a reputable, service-oriented immigration law firm.

Tapping into highly skilled talent

“Utah universities put a lot of investment into attracting international students, but those students are often unable to find permanent employment upon graduation due to confusing and outdated worker visa systems,” says Michelle Conley, director of partner relations for World Trade Center Utah. Formerly, Conley was the refugee program director for the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.

While WTC Utah does not manage an immigration program, the organization is an outspoken advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. Conley says the team at WTC Utah hopes to help solve the broken parts of the system by making it easier for employers to hire international students upon graduation.

“Employers are often hesitant to hire graduating students because they aren’t familiar with the visa system or how to apply for worker status for their potential employees,” she continues. “This means many talented, U.S.-trained potential employees return to their home countries. Making the process easier and more transparent for employers to hire these students would help Utah companies retain highly-educated workers who have already spent years in the state and would like to remain.” 

Conley believes it is very feasible to reform and increase immigration—and it’s in our best interest. Skilled, foreign-born workers will strengthen our economy, innovation and standing in the world, she says.

“Utah is strongest when it’s seen as one of the most welcoming and accommodating places in the world to get an education, start or work at a business and raise a family,” Conley says.

Utah is welcoming of refugees and immigrants, but companies are hesitant to build out sponsorship programs. Is this setting us back in terms of innovation?

Claudia Soto Saavedra, TrueVisa’s first customer.

Utilizing government support

If navigating employment-based visa programs seems daunting, the Utah Immigration Assistance Center was established to assist with just that. The center also works with companies and communities to identify opportunities for the existing immigrant workforce through the New Americans Task Force.

“With employment-based visa programs and maximizing the skills of existing immigrants, businesses in our state have the opportunity to build a strong workforce with essential workers and other skilled professionals to support key industry shortages,” says Natalie El-Deiry, the director of immigration and new American integration at the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity.

At a time when employment shortages are surmounting, immigrants in Utah tend to be of working age and have higher workforce participation rates than their U.S.-born counterparts, according to the American Immigration Council.

“Further, many immigrants are working in jobs beneath their skills and education levels. This means that, as a state, we are not maximizing the potential of immigrants,” El-Deiry says. “We aim to provide support and resources for Utah businesses and communities to maximize the potential of immigrant workers and recognize their contributions to our growing economy.”

Elainna Ciaramella (pronounced Elena Chairamella) was born and raised in Los Angeles, but spent over a decade near Laguna Beach in Orange County, California. After moving to sunny Las Vegas, the “entertainment capital of the world,” her yearning to live close to an outdoor playground brought her to southern Utah, where she now lives a few short miles from Tech Ridge, Atwood Innovation Plaza at Utah Tech, Dixie Technical College, and some of the best trails in the Beehive State. As a researcher, journalist and hopelessly devoted storyteller, she’s spent many full days interviewing founders, CEOs, and C-suite executives from all over the country. Beyond writing, her passions include strength training, art, music, hiking, and reading.