Are foreign nationals eligible for security clearances in the United States?
Many American companies and universities welcome international engineers, and the immigration process for skilled engineers is a lot easier than for other professions. A lot of the really interesting jobs, however, require security clearance — interesting, and with salaries 25% higher than uncleared positions.
What if you want to come and work for NASA, Northrop Grumman, or the Los Alamos National Laboratory? Is that an option?
Surprisingly, yes. And it’s considerably easier than you might expect.
Are Foreign Nationals Eligible for US Security Clearance?
Liz — not her real name — is a training systems specialist who worked on simulators for the Apache helicopter, the F-18 strike fighter and other weapons systems. She says she’s often worked with foreign nationals on secure projects. “I’ve worked alongside a lot of people from different countries who were here on Green Cards. We had Russians, Europeans, Canadians, Indians and others on our teams. It depends exactly where you’re from, but a lot of the time, it was actually quicker for them to get their clearance than it was for some of the American workers.”
“We have a large community of foreign nationals here at Los Alamos,” says Jim Nesmith, Foreign National Program Coordinator at Los Alamos. “Obviously we have strict criteria, and they operate under some restrictions, such as not being able to enter certain buildings or work on certain projects, but we depend on our international community for some of the amazing science we do here. Despite the public perception, there’s a lot more going on here than just nuclear weapons research, so there are many other opportunities for foreign engineers.”
What Level of Security Clearance Do You Need?
Security clearance can be confusing. “It’s not a single, monolithic thing,” explains Bill Henderson of the Federal Clearing Assistance Service. “There are several different agencies, and they all have their own interpretation of the laws. Plus there are three different programs, all with different rules.”
To start with there’s Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, usually known as HSPD-12. That clearance is required for anyone to get physical or logical access to any government system or facility. Once you have that clearance, you’ll be issued with a Personal Identity Verification Card (PIV), known in the military as a Common Access Card (CAC).
Then there’s Federal Employee Suitability, which is a requirement for all federal employees and some government contractors. And lastly, there’s National Security Clearance, which is required for access to classified information, and can range from Confidential to Top Secret and then more specialized levels. Depending on your role, you may require clearance through all three programs.
“A lot of our work was classified Secret,” says Liz. “That was usually straightforward. However, we rarely had foreigners working on Top Secret projects. It wasn’t unheard of, though, particularly where we were developing material to support weapons systems that were being sold overseas.”
What Do Clearance Officers Look For?
Mark — again, not his real name — is a former NSA clearance officer. “In the case of foreigners, what we’re primarily looking for is whether their allegiance to their home country is likely to cause them to damage the United States. If you’re from the US, UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand – known as the 5 I’s – we have agreements that can expedite your clearance. On the other hand, if you’re from somewhere like Afghanistan or Iran, then we delve a little deeper, but it’s usually not as simple as just turning you down based on your nationality.”
“There are some countries we don’t allow here at Los Alamos,” says Nesmith. “If you’re from a country that has links to state-sponsored terrorism, then that’s a problem. Otherwise, they’re mostly looking for the same things they do with American citizens. Bad credit, criminal history, and so on. Even if you’ve served in the foreign military or been a member of a political party, that doesn’t always disqualify you.”
“One thing we’re always concerned about is the so-called ‘hostage situation’”, explains Henderson. “If you’ve got family back home who could be subject to pressure from a hostile government, that’s a potential reason for denial. You may be here with the best of intentions, but how would you react if your parents, spouse, or children were threatened?”
“The most important thing is to be honest,” says Liz. “If they can catch you in the smallest lie, they’ll deem you untrustworthy. If there’s something in your background, it’s best to be open about it.”
Mark concurs. “They can use almost anything to turn you down. If you’ve got a bank account back home, or you own property, or you have relatives still there, or even if you have contact with other foreign nationals at a local community center, those can all be deemed to be good enough reasons. On the other hand, if your employer really wants you and you seem trustworthy, they can grant you a clearance despite all that.”
Henderson has one last piece of advice for applicants with dual citizenship. “Having dual citizenship can be really tricky,” he notes. “If you have ever exercised any privilege of that foreign citizenship, that can count against you. Voting, traveling on your non-US passport, even paying taxes.”
What Are Working Conditions Like for Cleared Foreign Nationals?
“When you get your clearance, there will be conditions,” says Mark. “You’ll have to report all contacts with foreigners or the media, and you’ll have to get permission for any overseas travel. Failure to do so can get your clearance revoked and get you imprisoned or deported. That can be a real pain, especially if you’re working in a multinational company where you have clients around the world or you’re still part of your own community. There’s a lot of tedious paperwork involved.”
Your job will define whether there are certain areas that are off-limits to you. At Los Alamos, there’s a clear protocol for allowing foreign nationals into restricted areas, whether they’re employees or just visitors.
“It’s no different for foreigners to what Americans have to go through,” notes Henderson. “The background checks are more rigorous, but once you’ve got your clearance, you’re subject to the same levels of monitoring and surveillance, and you’ll be restricted in your workplace just like anyone else.”
Some of the most cutting edge engineering is being done in the US defense industry. It offers the chance to work on fascinating projects, not all of which are directly related to the armed forces. You could be developing advanced avionics, communications systems, spacecraft, materials, robotics, or nuclear technologies. Even if you’re not an American, there’s no reason not to apply for engineering roles requiring a security clearance.
It may be a slow and irritating process, but the potential is huge.
Featured Image Credit: Matt Erasmus