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

Stephanie Adeline
Dallas Morning News

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 on Indeed. It was just like brushing his teeth, he said. And his ability to stay in the U.S. depended on it.

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

Nikita D’Monte came to the U.S. from India on a student visa, but without a corporate sponsor, she can’t apply for the coveted H-1B work visa.

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 U.S. 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.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Jalan said. “That anxiety is always going to be there until my H-1B kicks in.”

The complex system for getting work visas in the U.S. doesn’t just complicate the lives of talented students. Experts say it is depriving the U.S. of that talent just when unemployment is at its lowest in years. Many foreign students are being forced to leave the country, and that’s costing America at a time when high-skilled workers are in high demand.

“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, 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.

For most students, the path to permanent employment in the U.S. is complicated, and worse, shaped like an inverted pyramid, with hundreds of thousands of foreign students legally studying in the U.S. 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 like 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. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of students like Jalan who received temporary work authorization under OPT has nearly doubled. In 2014, around 140,000 students requested OPT. By 2018, the number had grown to more than 249,000.

Those who wish to stay longer will need to apply for an employment-based visa. The most common visa is the H-1B, and obtaining it requires a corporate sponsor. The quest for such a sponsor is a constant source of anxiety for students who are already studying in the U.S.

Back home in India, Nikita D’Monte earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and co-founded an online magazine called Ink Drift. While pursuing a second master’s degree at UT Dallas, she worked as a graduate teaching assistant, contributed to a student-run publication, and still made time to apply to at least 1,000 jobs, she said. She had several job interviews, but companies were unwilling to hire her because of her visa status.

“It’s not the fact that my skill sets don’t match the job,” she said. “Sometimes I do feel like I’m overqualified. I have been told that ... even though you’re overqualified, we still cannot take you on because we are not ready to sponsor (for a visa) at this point of time.’”

Without a corporate sponsor, D’Monte can’t apply for the H-1B and needs to find another way to stay here. For many students, going back to school and obtaining another student visa is an option. D’Monte has been accepted to a PhD program and plans to go back to school this year, and she finally was offered contract work for Levi’s in Dallas and is working under OPT.

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. 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 USCIS.

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, Migration Policy Institute senior analyst.

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.

In early 2019, USCIS made a change to H-1B process that was aimed at giving U.S. employers seeking foreign workers with a U.S. master’s or higher degree a greater chance in the lottery. The change was expected to increase the number of advanced degree holders by 16% by reversing the order in which H-1B petitions were selected in the lottery, USCIS said.

But some critics have said the change creates a math problem that will result in fewer visas selected overall, and say it hurts high-skilled workers who only have bachelor’s degrees.

Critics are also concerned because President Trump’s Buy American and Hire American executive order, signed in 2017, has resulted in tighter scrutiny of the H-1B visa process. More applications are being denied, and there’s been an increase in requests for evidence, slowing the process.

But the challenge of retaining high-skilled foreign graduates predates Trump. Experts say the H-1B system is not designed to give an easy path for foreign students.