Foreign alums cope with visa troubles

After studying at Yale for four years, Semih Salihoglu ’06 was ready to continue his life in the United States as a software engineer for Google in New York City.

A Turkish citizen, Salihoglu was a computer science and economics double major and holder of the highest grade-point average in Silliman College after seven terms — an ideal candidate for many jobs in the United States. But his plans were disrupted when he was denied the necessary visa for employment for foreign workers with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree or higher, the H-1B.

“It was shocking because no one thought there was any risk in not getting an H-1B visa,” Salihoglu said.

Salihoglu is one of many foreign graduating seniors who were unable to obtain H-1B visas this year due to increasing demand. Months later, they continue to deal with the ramifications of the visa shortage, and pending immigration legislation may or may not raise the visa cap for the coming fiscal year.

The congressionally mandated quota was reached more than two months earlier in 2006 than it was last year, and before many students received their diplomas, said Ann Kuhlman, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at Yale. Because the H-1B application requires proof of at least a bachelor’s degree, graduating seniors were at a significant disadvantage to other visa applicants, who were able to apply from April 1, she said.

“The difficulty is you never quite know when you are going to hit the limitation,” Kuhlman said. “I’m sure it was certainly a disappointment to find out that you just missed it.”

This year the cap was reached on May 26, only four days after Yale’s Commencement. The same limit was reached on Aug. 10 and Oct. 1 in 2005 and 2004, respectively, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services press releases.

At least 11 of the 113 international students in the Class of 2006 were affected by the H-1B shortage, according to an e-mail survey conducted by OISS Assistant Director Monica Weeks. But that figure is probably an underestimate, as some affected graduates may not have received the e-mail or chosen to respond, she said. Weeks said one Yale alumnus estimated that at least 20 graduates had visa problems this year.

Complicated solutions

For the most part, companies were willing to work with students to find solutions to fill the 16 months between graduation and Oct. 1, 2007, when the next round of H-1B visas will take affect. Some graduates will remain in the United States temporarily by using “optional practical training” — up to 12 months of employment authorization provided by the international student visa. They may take time off before starting work or transfer abroad between the end of their OPT and next October.

Other graduates, like Matthew Konieczny ’06, were permanently relocated to offices overseas.

Konieczny, who is from Canada, was hired by Lehman Brothers in New York as an investment banking analyst. The company did not inform Konieczny until July that he had missed the visa application cutoff and would have to move abroad to keep his job.

“It was obviously surprising that I didn’t get a visa, because I’m from Canada,” he said. “I think my situation points out the fact that American immigration policy has become so tight that it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what school you graduate from or where you are going to work.”

Like many international students who plan to pursue careers in finance, consulting or technology-related fields, both Salihoglu and Konieczny had used a portion of their OPT time on summer internships in the United States, leaving them less flexibility after graduation. The only way for foreign graduates without H-1B status to start work is through OPT, said Salihoglu, who will return to the United States in two weeks to begin his job at Google and relocate to another Google office when his OPT expires.

“If you are lucky [and] you are working for a big company, they can send you to London or to Europe,” Salihoglu said. “Or they can send you on vacation for three or four months, depending on how much [OPT] you have.”

But a number of Ivy League alumni said they had heard of companies retracting job offers in the wake of the visa shortage. Salihoglu said a company might not be able to retain an international employee who did not get a visa, regardless of his or her potential.

“There are companies that don’t have offices outside the U.S., and if you tell them you can’t work for them for five months, they might have some tendency to cancel your contract,” he said.

Yale graduates were not the only ones affected by the shortage. While at least one Yale student filed his paperwork in time, at some schools — such as Harvard and Dartmouth — finals and graduation dates were scheduled as late as June, well past the application deadline.

Harvard alumna Yue Zhou, an economics major from China, said she was alarmed to learn that she had not received a visa to work for Citigroup in the United States. Zhou, who now works in London, said she did not have much influence over the visa application process.

“The corporate immigration lawyers took care of the process, and I only followed their instructions to provide them with necessary documents,” Zhou said in an e-mail. “I was obviously unable to submit all the materials before I graduated from Harvard, since the diploma is a required document.”

Harvard alumnus Victor Bicalho, who was also unable to file his application materials in time, said he is not aware of any Harvard students who secured a visa.

Harvard’s commencement took place on June 8, and final exams ended on May 26 — the day the visa limit was reached. At least six 2006 Harvard graduates could not obtain visas.

Because students apply for the visa through the companies that hire them, international student offices are unable to track how many seek to work in the United States, said Robin Catmur, associate director of the Dartmouth International Office.

At least one Yale alumnus, Australian citizen Jie Zhou ’06, was able to avoid the consequences of the H-1B shortage. On the advice of his employer, Zhou applied for the E-3 visa — an equivalent of the H-1B exclusively available to Australian citizens. Because 10,500 E-3 visas are available each year, he was in a much better position than many of his international counterparts.

“I think my experience was made relatively painless because [of] the special Australian visa category [and] excellent support from the immigration lawyers hired by my employer,” he said in an e-mail.

A brief history of the H-1B

The H-1B is given to nonimmigrant foreign workers who are temporarily employed in a “specialty occupation,” such as education, law, business or medicine, or as a highly skilled fashion model. This visa is the main route by which non-American graduate and undergraduate students qualify for work in the United States, Georgetown international migration professor Susan Martin said.

A graduate’s job must be related to the his or her field of study, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an American Immigration Lawyers Association member and adjunct professor of law at Cornell,

“You have to be working in a job that requires your degree,” Yale-Loehr said. “You can’t get a history degree from Yale and flip hamburgers with an H-1B visa.”

Current legislation limits the annual number of H-1B visas to 65,000, but in the past the cap was raised due to an increased demand in the technology job market.

The H-1B visa was established under the “Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1990,” which expanded opportunities for employment-based immigration into the United States. The annual visa quota, which was initially set at 65,000, was exceeded for several years after the information technology boom, Martin said. The cap was raised to 115,000 for the fiscal years 1999 and 2000 and eventually to 195,000 for 2001 to 2003.

“As long as the boom stayed, there was political support for doing that because it was a win-win situation for everybody,” said Martin, who is the director of Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration.

The visa cap returned to 65,000 in October 2003, but since then an additional 20,000 visas have been available annually to foreign workers with a master’s degree or higher.

Of the 65,000 H-1B visas, 6,800 are reserved for immigrants from Chile and Singapore under the United States’ free trade agreements with those countries, but 6,000 of those from the last fiscal year were unused and added to the 2006 visa pool.

Implications

The fact that the visa quota was filled so early this year may carry significant implications for current international students. If the trend continues and the H-1B quota is not increased, they may have no chance of securing an employment visa. This may make companies more reluctant to recruit international students, Kuhlman said.

“I suspect that it probably gives some employers pause because they know the difficulties they might face in hiring international students,” she said.

Consequently, international students may have less flexibility after they graduate and may have to explore options other than employment in the United States, Kuhlman said.

“I think it may require these students to have a backup plan — either working outside the U.S. or perhaps considering graduate school or a professional degree a little earlier than they might have otherwise,” she said.

Yale Law School professor Peter Schuck, an immigration specialist, said he thinks the visa limit has been a problem for some time. He said highly educated and qualified H-1B holders are “extremely attractive immigrants,” and both those who eventually become permanent residents and those who return to their home countries can contribute to American competitiveness.

“The advantages to American business and American consumers from a robust H-1B program are definitely great,” Schuck said. “There is a very fierce competition going on for people of these skills throughout the world, and we should not disable ourselves from engaging in this competition and winning it.”

Politics and immigration

There are a number of parties involved in the debate, lobbying either for or against expansion of the H-1B program. The two sides disagree on how the H-1B visa program affects the U.S. economy and domestic workers. While the H-1B visa is always a contentious issue in Congress, it may garner special attention this year since immigration is an important issue in pre-election debate, Kuhlman said.

Yale President Richard Levin said he has been concerned with the H-1B issue for a number of years, especially in regard to recipients of advanced degrees.

“It was one of my top issues when I was in Washington,” Levin said, referring to a September visit to Capitol Hill. “I’ve been working actively on this front for some years.”

Levin said he thinks his view that the H-1B quota should be expanded is widely shared among university presidents. He also said there is support in Washington for the expansion of the H-1B program, but that change will not come without effort.

“It will take work, and the immigration bill that is currently unresolved in Congress has many other controversial elements,” Levin said. “But I think if we continue to push for this, then we make some progress.”

University administrators, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and technology employers are the three main groups lobbying in favor of more H-1Bs, while national workers’ groups and immigration reduction groups are the primary opponents of the program, said University of California, Davis computer science professor Norman Matloff.

“The politics behind it largely concern efforts by groups of workers — particularly computer workers — who fear competition from the visa holders,” Schuck said.

Matloff, an outspoken critic of the H-1B program, said companies have used the visas to underpay foreign workers and discriminate against older citizens. The current law stipulates that H-1B holders must be paid the “prevailing wage” and cannot be hired to break up a strike or replace U.S. workers, but Matloff said there are enough loopholes to make some wage depression and discrimination against U.S. workers perfectly legal.

“Virtually all employers, not just the small ones, violate the spirit … of the law in these ways,” Matloff said in an e-mail. “Congress is highly beholden to the industry’s campaign donations, and writes legislation accordingly.”

Matloff said he believes the United States should be importing the “best and the brightest,” which is not necessarily implied by an Ivy League or graduate degree or employment in a high-paying job.

But Konieczny said he thinks arguments such as Matloff’s are hypocritical because they support talented individuals entering the country to increase American competitiveness but fear that competition with foreign workers will keep Americans out of jobs. Konieczny said immigration and competition have been important factors in the economic and social development of the United States.

“The United States is a country built off of able foreigners coming in and contributing,” Konieczny said.

Yale-Loehr said that as long as current laws to prevent wage depression and worker discrimination are enforced by the government, the H-1B program will not have a detrimental impact on the American economy.

“Obviously anyone can violate the law,” he said. “The important thing is that the Labor Department … has enough resources to do its job.”

Economic evidence currently points to a need for more H-1B workers, and the visa quota should be set with regard to that need, Yale-Loehr said.

“We believe that rather than having an artificial cap set by congress, the marketplace should determine the number of H-1B visas handed out each year,” he said.

Konieczny said he thinks a major problem with the H-1B application process is the quota approach, which is based on who applies first rather than who is most qualified. This arbitrary cutoff eliminates competition because it does not determine which applicants are the best to allow into the country.

“It’s in the government’s interest to invest in a screening process able to screen more than 60,000 applications,” he said. “You eliminate competition and you eliminate the system that is aiming to diversify and enhance the America population.”

Future of the H-1B program

The H-1B visa issue might be slow to change because it is tied up in the larger debate over immigration reform, Yale-Loehr said.

“A lot of immigration issues are not being solved until the larger issues are solved,” he said. “It’s like anything in Congress — it takes a long time to pass a major bill that seems controversial.”

In the past year, both the House and the Senate passed immigration reform bills, which are still pending in Congress. But the two bodies approached the issue of immigration reform in very different ways.

The House bill — passed last December — focused on the strengthening of border control, while the Senate bill — passed this past May — took a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform.

If enacted, the Senate bill would increase the number of H-1B visas to 115,000 for one year and use “a market-based calculation” to determine the cap for each subsequent year. The bill would also increase the quota by 20 percent if the previous year’s quota is reached and would exempt aliens with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math from the H-1B limit.

The House bill, the Senate bill, or some compromise may be approved during Congress’ lame-duck session after the general elections in November, Yale-Loehr said.

Schuck said he thinks the immigration debate is often more political than practical, and divisions do not necessarily fall along party lines.

“Immigration has strange political alliances,” he said. “I would guess that there are a number of Democrats as well as some restrictionist Republicans who have supported the restriction of these visas.”

The Bush administration has supported comprehensive immigration reform and increasing avenues for foreign workers to gain employment legally, according to CNN and the Washington Post, respectively.

Alumni differed on how much the H-1B shortage affected their lives. Some students, like Konieczny, said not receiving H-1B status was highly disruptive to their lives and future plans. But others said that while changing their plans was inconvenient, not getting a visa this year will not affect them greatly in the long-term.

“I am doing the same kind of job, just in a different office,” Yue Zhou said.

Current international students must be aware of the H-1B visa quota and file their forms as soon as possible, alumni said.

“Apply early, as in April 1 early,” Jarek Langer ’06 said in an e-mail. “Do not wait until you get your diploma. It will be too late.”

Bicalho said students should be proactive and involved in the application process.

“Take ownership over the process,” Bicalho said. “Talk to the school’s international office early so they can start working with you. … As soon as you have an offer, know who are the lawyers your firm will use and contact them so that you can work together.”

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