Nation & World

Foreign students who want to work in U.S. must navigate complex visa system

Foreign-born graduates must navigate a very narrow path to staying in the United States permanently. (Dreamstime/TNS)
Foreign-born graduates must navigate a very narrow path to staying in the United States permanently. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The pressure to find a job was high for Amrit Jalan. For 10 months, the University of Texas at Dallas student spent mornings and nights sending out resumes.

His ability to stay in the United States depended on it.

Jalan, from India, is one of hundreds of thousands of student visa holders who want to work in the United States after graduation. But in addition to the challenge of finding a job, foreign-born graduates must navigate a very narrow path to staying in this country permanently.

Most arrive on an F-1 visa, more commonly known as a student visa. As they earn their degrees, they often work with an Optional Practical Training employment authorization.

But to stay and work in the United States on a more permanent basis, they need another kind of visa, usually an H-1B visa for workers with needed talents.

There’s intense competition for those visas, which almost always require the worker to have a corporate sponsor and get through a lottery system.

That complex system for getting work visas in the United States doesn’t just complicate the lives of talented students. Experts say it is depriving this country of that talent just when unemployment is at its lowest in years.

Many foreign students are being forced to leave, and that’s costing America at a time when high-skilled workers are in high demand.

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“We would attract the best minds from all over the world to study in our universities on an F visa, and then we’d make them promise that they would go home to go compete against us, which is sort of a crazy way to think about it,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy.

After sending out 3,000 resumes in 10 months, Jalan landed a position as an operations analyst at Nike in Portland, Ore., four months after he graduated with a master’s degree in systems engineering and management.

But he still needs his H-1B visa to make a life here. Having a corporate sponsor may not get him that coveted document. There’s an element of luck as well.

Practical training

For most students, the path to permanent employment in the United States is complicated, and worse, shaped like an inverted pyramid — with hundreds of thousands of foreign students legally studying in the United States through F-1 visas, and then only a fraction of those working through OPT and far fewer moving on to other, more permanent work visas such as the H-1B after graduation.

OPT authorizes a student on an F-1 visa for up to one year of employment, with a possible two-year extension for STEM — science, technology, engineering or math — majors.

In 2014, around 140,000 students requested OPT. By 2018, the number had grown to more than 249,000.

Obtaining an H-1B visa requires a corporate sponsor. The quest for such a sponsor is a constant source of anxiety for students who are already studying in the United States.

While people from foreign countries can apply for other types of employment-based visas, they are not as common as the H-1B because the requirements are far more specific.

For example, the TN visa is specific to Canadian and Mexican nationals, and the O visa is for people with “extraordinary ability.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Matthew Bourke said in a statement that the agency does not have data available on the total number of F-1 students who applied for an H-1B.

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But only about 30,000 to 40,000 F-1 students are approved for the H-1B visa each year between 2012 and 2017, according to CIS.

There’s a nagging reason that the number of F-1 students who changed status to H-1B is relatively small compared to the almost quarter million students who are staying on OPT, said Jeanne Batalova, senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

That’s because there’s a limit to how many new H-1B visas can be issued each year. And that number has not grown in more than a decade.

Since 2005, the annual cap for the number of available H-1B visas is at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 for those with a master’s or higher level degree. Every April, when the annual application period opens, if the number of petitions exceeds the cap, those who apply are entered into a lottery for the coveted spots.

“More and more people came to the United States to study,” said Batalova. “If you look at the number of international students, it has been climbing fairly steadily. And yet we still have the 65,000 cap.”

Since 2014, the number of petitions has always exceeded the cap and required a lottery. In 2017, there were more than 236,000 petitions within the first five business days of April, and in 2018 that number dropped slightly to 199,000, according to the Pew Research Center.

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