Illegal Question #3: Are you a US citizen?

Why they ask it:

Normally, I try not to editorialize too much on these questions but this is one that I believe can warrant some serious debate. Before I get to my own opinion on the subject, I want to clarify that it is currently legal to ask a person if they are authorized to work in the United States – you just can’t ask them if they are a citizen (as opposed to having a green card or work visa). You are allowed to ask someone flat out if they are legally authorized to work in the United States.

This question is asked for a variety of reasons such as:

  • Sometimes work visas expire and this can cause difficulty for the employer.
  • If the employer got in trouble for hiring an illegal alien, they may be extra careful with future hires.
  • Occasionally, the interviewer may have just become a citizen or is in the process of doing so, so this question could come up in a casual conversation.

In most cases, the interviewer doesn’t know that this is an illegal question – and understandably so. I don’t fully understand the rationale behind why this is an illegal question, but I do have my hunches (which I’ll save for another topic).

Also, this question is often asked to people who haven’t worked for a US company before.

How to answer the question:

If you’re a citizen, simply state so and move on the next question. Otherwise, state “I am legally authorized to work in the United States” which will satisfy most people. If they press you for more information, you have the following options:

  • Be truthful about your situation and alleviate any concerns the potential employer may have.
  • Politely let the person know that they have asked an illegal question.
  • If you’re not interested in the company, end the interview.
  • If your treatment was particularly bad, file a complaint against the employer.
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One thought on “Illegal Question #3: Are you a US citizen?

  1. Marjan

    Thanks for the useful post.
    I am a green card holder, looking for the IT job in the LA area.
    Currently I am having hard time getting interview opportunities as I get no responses after job applications…
    Do you have some useful advices that can help me get interviews and eventually job offers?
    Thanks a million in advance!

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