Visa Airplane Rendition

Foreign companies looking to invest in Virginia go through the same considerations as their domestic counterparts — site evaluation and selection, workforce availability, and logistical issues, to name a few. But another factor more often encountered by foreign companies can have major workforce implications.

Visa requirements imposed by the U.S. government have become an important step in the site selection process that needs to be considered along with traditional factors like real estate and workforce requirements. The lead time on visa processing, handled at the federal level, can be longer than companies expect. 

State and local economic developers, including VEDP, are doing what they can to educate companies on these issues. Antje Abshoff, VEDP’s Germany-based managing director of international business investment, recommends companies engage a visa lawyer at least a year ahead of a planned groundbreaking in order to allow enough time for the process to play out.

A Cautionary Tale in Northern Virginia

Irish company Hanley Energy, which has offices on four continents, chose the Loudoun County community of Ashburn for its U.S. headquarters in 2015 because of its location in the heart of the “Data Center Alley” industry hotspot. It then grew its workforce so much, it expanded its office space 20-fold, opening a 40,000-sq.-ft., purpose-built office last year. 

To manage that expansion and head its growing American business, Hanley wanted to transfer a seasoned senior executive, Niall Franklin. Hanley CEO Clive Gilmore expected it would take weeks to get a visa for Franklin. Instead, it took three years. 

“It’s exceptionally difficult because we are trying to launch a product, we are trying to open an office, and you do need to have the subject matter expert,” Gilmore said. 

The trouble wasn’t limited to getting Franklin what’s called an L visa, which enables multinational corporations to transfer senior executives or professionals with specialized expertise to the U.S. The timeline for visa recipients to get visas for spouses and children left Franklin separated from his wife and their 20-month-old toddler until the company intervened.

Two employees of Hanley Energy, which is located in Loudoun County in Northern Virginia

Hanley Energy, Loudoun County


Hanley, which helps companies identify and eliminate wasted energy, is just one company whose plans to locate or grow in the United States have been stymied by work visa issues. Armed with experience, the VEDP team works to mitigate unanticipated challenges around lengthy approval processes and federal visa requirements by spreading awareness and educating companies early in the process. This challenge is not unique to Virginia or any other state, but a standard site selection consideration companies must prepare for, no matter the project.

When companies do run into this issue in Virginia, the problem isn’t state or local officials, who are among the most helpful in the nation supporting multinational companies looking to make or expand their footprints in America, says lawyer Teri Simmons, who heads immigration law at Atlanta-based Arnall Golden Gregory LLP. “Virginia is always engaged in discussions with embassies and consulates to advocate for more efficient processing for companies investing in Virginia,” she said.

But while Virginia is open for business, federal immigration law is challenging.

“The U.S. is losing the talent that it needs to remain competitive in a global marketplace,” Simmons said. 

Roadblocks are numerous. Multinational corporations want to invest and grow in the United States by moving talent from elsewhere in their companies to help with American operations. But doing so can be slow, unpredictable, and expensive. The percentage of visas denied peaked between 2017 and 2020, Simmons said. It’s since improved, but delays and denials still hinder business expansions. 

Companies like Hanley pay about  $4,000, plus legal fees, for each visa application. Applications are evaluated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff, who may lack the relevant experience to determine whether an applicant has expertise that isn’t available in the United States. 

No state agency, said Simmons, has done better at mitigating these issues than VEDP, which helps investors and businesses navigate barriers and delays. Part of Abshoff’s job is to alert companies to issues like visa applications that can hinder international expansions.

While the barriers are federal, they can have an outsized impact on Virginia because the Commonwealth is otherwise so attractive to foreign companies, investors, and professionals, thanks to proximity to the nation’s capital and other major population centers.

Filling Workforce Gaps to Grow Employment

When discussing best practices in visa procurement, Simmons speaks not just for client companies, but from personal experience. Last year, her firm tried to grow its business by hiring a new lawyer licensed to practice in the United States and Germany. Simmons had an ideal candidate, a former student of hers at the University of Georgia. But caps on the number of visas available, distributed via lottery, prevented the firm from securing a visa for the candidate.

“When companies can’t hire them legally, it causes a tremendous issue for business,” she said.

If you bring skilled people into areas where there is a deficit of workers, then you enable companies to expand. That expansion will allow for more business and that additional business will allow for more employment, including for Americans.

Teri Simmons Partner, Arnall Golden Gregory LLP

Businesses in Virginia and across the U.S. prefer to hire a qualified American and avoid the costs and delays of seeking a visa, but some expertise is in short supply, including highly trained programmers and machine operators in the manufacturing industry, as well as science, technology, and engineering degree holders in tech.

“If you bring skilled people into areas where there is a deficit of workers, then you enable companies to expand. That expansion will allow for more business and that additional business will allow for more employment, not less, including for Americans,” Simmons said.

Hanley Energy is a great example. The company has brought a few foreign nationals over and used their expertise to build a growing business that employs hundreds of Americans. 

“You see all across the state — the foreign investment that is helping to drive the economy,” she said. 

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