Could a non-US citizen come to the US, receive flight training, earn an FAA CPL and be hired by a US-flagged airline? Are there any specific rules regarding the employment of foreigners as pilots for a US-based commercial airline? For the sake of example, an Iranian flying for a US-flagged carrier?
At the most basic level, the DHS/Dept.Of State regulations regarding work authorization have to be followed. There are essentially three categories you can be in, as far as employment is concerned:
A naturalized or natural-born U.S. Citizen. You're allowed to work for any U.S. employer.
An (in-status) permanent resident (green card holder). You're allowed to work for any U.S. employer.
A non-resident. You're allowed to work only with DHS authorization.
The first two are somewhat self-explanatory. Some positions may have special requirements - for example, you can't be a U.S. President without being natural-born. Some employers place limits on non-citizen employment due to various U.S. laws usually related to access to information of military nature or applicable to military needs. Thus, a lot of aerospace manufacturing is off-limits to non-U.S. citizens, simply because the company might also handle aerospace jobs and doesn't wish to sufficiently compartmentalize access. For example, most if not all SpaceX jobs are for U.S. citizens only. No such limitations apply to normal commercial transport pilots.
Permanent Resident Workers
Unless you're already a permanent resident, you may wonder how to become one. In most cases, someone else - a family member or an employer - must petition on your behalf, you can't apply yourself. There are also strict yearly numerical limits for most permanent resident visa categories. Citizen or permanent resident family members 21 years of age and older can apply for you, but unless you're petitioned for by a spouse, the waiting times are measured in years.
We can review the directory of Visa categories, immigrant, with an eye for transport crew employment. I will elaborate only on the categories that apply to a pilot who isn't eligible for another category (say you're not an Iraqi who has worked for U.S. Govt, etc.).
DV category - Diversity Visa - if you seriously think of working in the U.S., you should be applying every year. It's a lottery. Make sure you apply at the official
.govwebsite; the entry is free.
E Category - Employer-Sponsored. The first and most obvious requirement is that the potential employer must be willing to spend the money (on the order of $10k) to petition on your behalf. If they can find employees already authorized to work, there's very little incentive to petition.
Assuming that your employer is willing to sponsor an
E immigrant visa on your behalf, the next step is to obtain a labor certification from the Dept. of Labor. A Pilot would most likely fall under the third preference, assuming that a labor certification can be obtained. And here's the real clincher: given the never-ending supply of commercial transport pilots in the U.S., and a lack of any particular special requirement for the job (we aren't talking about test pilots!), there's a nil chance of the DOL certifying the position. The DOL certification process requires the employer to prove that there is an insufficient supply of qualified workers who are already authorized and qualified for the job. So that is, essentially, where it ends.
The third category is the most complex one. There are various kinds of work authorization available, under various programs. All of them have special requirements, thus a non-resident is by default ineligible for any work authorization, unless he/she fulfills the requirements. For example, students on F-1 status are authorized to perform on-campus work, and for certain off-campus jobs iff they amount to practical training.
The non-immigrant category (usually Letter-Number, with an optional Letter suffix, e.g. F-1) is indicated on the Visa, but remember that the Visa is merely a document that is necessary (but not sufficient) to enter the U.S. After you're in the U.S., you or your employer can adjust your immigration status, as long as you fulfill the requirements to do so.
Thus, we can review the directory of Visa categories, non-immigrant, with an eye for transport crew employment. I will elaborate only on the categories that apply to a pilot who isn't eligible for another category (say you don't work for NATO or UN, you're not a NAFTA signatory citizen, etc.).
- D category - allows you to work as a pilot, but you must be employed by an international airline, and you can't stay over 29 days. Your employment must be bona-fide; it can't be a sham set up just so that you can mostly work as a domestic pilot.
And that is, unfortunately, "it". You may be eligible for work if you're a citizen of one of the countries that U.S. has special agreements with, usually based on humanitarian and similar reasons, but those are few.
As you can see, FAA regulations don't even enter anywhere in the picture yet. The DHS regulations are a primary concern here.
Long story short, yes.
First, can non-US citizens get an FAA ATPL? Plenty of non-US citizens - myself included - hold FAA pilot's licenses (although I'm not an ATP). This question has more details, but as long as you're legally in the US with an appropriate visa, and you have TSA approval for training, then you can get any FAA license you want (or can afford!).
Second, are there any rules or limitations on foreigners piloting for US airlines? This is mostly a question about employment law: it's possible to hold a valid FAA license but not be authorized to work in the US. So again, if you have a valid visa or other work authorization then in general you can be employed by a US airline. Pilots do need background checks but obviously it is possible; Delta's pilot recruitment page simply says:
Current passport or other travel documents enabling the bearer to freely exit and re-enter the U.S. (multiple reentry status) and be legally eligible to work in the U.S. (possess proper working documents).
There may be some special cases for security-sensitive operations, but aviation in general is fairly international and you can find 'foreigners' flying in national airlines all over the world.